I recently had the great pleasure of speaking to Lee Hirsch, director of the amazing documentary Bully. What follows is a discussion about coping with documenting such harrowing subject matter, the bravery of the Sioux City School District and how we can expect something very different from him in his next work.
Blake Howard: What compelled you towards the subject?
Lee Hirsch: It’s something that I thought about a lot over the years and picked it up and put it away and picked it up it away. Part of it was like a little bit very close to home and just not really sure how to do it and could I get access and how, you know I was a bit scared I think probably of like kind of dealing with all of it. And then something kind of just clicked and I connected with Cynthia Lohan who produced a film with me and we just decided to really go for it. Once we started we realised like how much need there was, how many stories there were and how desperate people were feeling and that really connected into my memories as a kid. It’s just so hard to explain what happens but you know the movie could do that and we’d have a real shot at having a better national conversation about the issue to begin with.
BH: Did you ever expect the kids to be so profoundly eloquent about their experiences when you were conceiving it in your head?
LH: I think what was a really cool surprise was like how incredibly honest and articulate and just genius the kids were and I think they from a kind of emotional and intelligence perspective they leave the adults in the film in the dust.
BH: [Laughs] Yes, especially some of those school administrators.
BH: I can imagine it was a bit of an ordeal for you as a film maker cause your kind of just embedding yourself in the collective suffering, can you describe what that was like, like processing that and being able to sort of remain on point?
LH: Ahhh, yea I don’t know I mean drank a lot I don’t know. (Blake Laughs) It’s just a lot of work. It was just a lot of emotion um you know I was really fortunate to have some great people supporting me in making the film. I couldn’t have done it without the team of filmmakers and funders and you know advisors that really understood the world – I think - better than I did in many ways. The fact that I understood so well what bullying feels like, but there was a part of me that just really felt like just driven and committed and motivated and passionate about the work and I think that just really helped. It wasn’t like a work for hire situation, [I was] just driven by feeling really strong about the material and then just completely loving the families that are in the film and getting to know them and being just taken into the world myself.
BH: Was there ever a point that you thought during the project’s inception that you thought ‘I have to become a participant in this to kind of intervene’ as you did; or were you compelled toward it?
LH: I mean you know yes and no and everything and nothing (Blake laughs). I mean I think I never felt like we were just observers. It never felt like we were just journalists. The relationship with the school its complicated and ongoing. The relationship with the families, with the kids you know they were like my partners in making the film particularly Alex and Kelby and Ja’Maya, and so I felt like they understood all along that my presence was an active intervention. But you know as it plays out in the movie there was an incident and there was a decision to bring our footage to the family and the school and let the chips fall where they may. And you know it felt like at that time it was the right thing to do.
BH: Has there been any negative fallout about the subject for any of the participants?
LH: I think it’s been very hard for the assistant Principal. It’s been a challenge for the community, for Sioux City, for the school, for the district but they’ve stood by the film. [They’ve] engaged in lot of dialogue both at the local level and the state level and federal level, and I think they have also been recognised for their bravery and their courage. I mean the secretary of education for the United States acknowledged and personally thanked the superintendent of Sioux City, for his leadership and allowing this film to be made. It’s been really interesting and largely positive. Certainly with any film your gonna have people that are upset and think that it’s not their cup of tea, but generally I think we have had just a lot of really great support.
BH: Is there another subject or another something on the horizon that you can tell us a little bit about?
LH: I think you can expect to get something really different from me. I think you can expect to see me wanting to explore just film making without feeling like it has to be kind of a social cause all the time. You know I feel like I’ve worked really hard to make a difference and now I wanna have fun with my craft.
BH: Yes, I was going to say you’ve carried the weight for now, you know you’ve done your bit for the time being.
LH: Yeah, I hope so.
BH: [Laughs] Can I just ask who are the film makers who inspire you; because I know you just where talking and you didn’t want to be too generalistic, you saw yourselves as an intervention but did you take queues from any other documenters or film makers when you were conceiving Bully and did that influence how you approached it?
LH: I wouldn’t say there was like any one particular film or filmmaker that I really kind of was like ‘oh this is the thing I wanna kind of mimic or try and achieve’. I think generally I was more and more kind of feeling inspired by the like kinda letting go of the apparatus of production, and seeing more and more film makers that were creating personal documentaries without a lot of that kind of the big cameras and the vestiges of production and a friend of mine actually has introduced me to the Canon 5D, which you know, became like the liberating thing for the film which allowed me to just get started and shoot it myself and to really be able to be confident in myself as a DP for the first time. But you know, I mean I kinda have like alot of different taste in documentary. I really like the work of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady who did Boys of Baraka and Jesus Camp. I really love the Swedish film Waiting for Sugar Man, which is coming out, so yeah I’m kind of less drawn to the really journalistic films then I am by documentaries that have more of the kind of film maker in it but without it being driven by the film maker. Does that make sense?
BH: Yeah it does. I’ll just ask you one last question. Do you have a guilty pleasure movie?
LH: That’s a good one. I dunno, every once and awhile I like to re-watch this movie Flirting with Disaster a Ben Stiller movie cause I just think it’s hilarious, and then you know the other guilty pleasure is to just go see a giant Hollywood big studio movie and just kind of forget it all.
BH: Turn on Battleship and just let it blow your mind clean of anything?
LH: Yeah exactly
BH: Lee Hirsch Thank you so much for taking the time and it was a profoundly affective doc in Bully for the majority – You know very fortunately I caught it at Sydney Film Festival but I can’t wait for Australian audiences to catch it. So thanks so much for taking the time to chat to us at Graffiti with Punctuation.
LH: Awesome. Thanks so much man – be well.
In my review I wrote that;
Bully’s unobtrusive and poetic style, subtly but surgically uncovers the prison-like social hierarchical structure cultivated in US schools – where the administrators practise a resounding ‘look the other way’ philosophy. It’s an affective, powerful, honest voice that demands to be heard.
Full Review here.
Bully is released in theatrically in Australia on the 23rd of August 2012 and the 23rd of April 2012 in the U.S.A.