Let me begin by saying that you must forgive my verbose digressions but I feel they are necessary for thinking through this film.
Bully, not to be confused with Larry Clark’s shocking exhibition, is an interesting film, though not quite a great one. Many documentaries, or I should say, all, are biased in some way toward a particular subject or ideology that is put forth. The moment a shot is edited with another shot, it has been shaped to project the filmmakers point of view. Truly, even when a camera is turned on and framed on a specific subject, your pov is exhibited - you have already decided what to leave in or out of a particular shot. The addition of sound effects and music, oddly, adds to the illusion of faux reality.
Cinéma Vérité is a form of filmmaking, known for realism, that devises long takes, few cuts and employs little enhanced sound effects or music tweaking or none at all. Rarely are these films really interesting, let alone entertaining, with the exception of the Maysles Brother’s Grey Gardens and Salesman to name a few. There may be an extreme exception with an experimental film like Andy Warhol's Empire, which is a 24 hour static shot of the Empire State Building but even this so called film is unrealistic because nobody sane stares at an object for a full day, unflinching. Still, it seems highly improbable to be completely objective towards an ideal or story in it's entirety, especially if you happen to be passionate about the subject matter like the ostensible Michael Moore purports. I believe Bully suffers from too much subjective interference in this way. Consider one example in the beginning of the film when Alex, the boy with glasses, is about to board the bus. The director chooses to add consistent heavy breathing on the soundtrack, nearly imperceptible to most, but subconsciously insists on making the situation more intense than in reality. I don’t appreciate manipulation in this way.
The film tugged at my heart and my tear ducts during numerous scenes. It was designed that way. You really do feel bad for many of the bullied students - who wouldn't? For reasons I shall soon illuminate, the mawkish sentiment was really too one sided.
I don't have children and for that reason I think my reasoning will seem to be from a cold Darwinian point of view, regardless, I think my view will be closer to the truth if you bear with me. Boys will be boys is a familiar aphorism that everyone knows. In the film it is used in the pejorative sense, which is to say that this is a phrase that many utter when they have no intention of solving the real issue of a certain conflict or they deem the contention to be a product brought on by the natural order of things - a Darwinian viewpoint to some degree.
I can only speak for the USA, (and really only a small part of it), we as Americans are bullies, and have been for quite some time. We take what we want and occasionally remain apathetic toward whom we hurt in the process. I am speaking in a political point of view here and am very much generalizing and also not taking into account that we may not do such things with intentional malice but I think most would concede that America has a bullying epithet attached to its name. For now, we are still the "greatest country in the world" and I'm sure it would have been difficult to get there without some type of intimidation. I say all this because I think that this slight condescension toward others, self aggrandizement, and superior attitude is somewhat ingrained in us as a people and therefore, (maybe it is time for a change), many people tend to overlook bullying and may even secretly think it's a good and healthy product of adolescence.
I believe that some bullying is probably not all bad. I will explain two cases from within the film. One boy, who was bullied for a long period of time, finally stood up for himself and clocked the bully. You may not, and probably should not condone violence, but in this case it was probably warranted to some degree and was most likely beneficial to both parties. Another boy was a bully himself - unfortunately this is the only time we hear an account from a bully - he changed over time because he could see the harm he was doing to others. No one informed him of this - it came to him naturally or rather came from his innate sense of morality and goodness that most of us contain. This was an important life lesson for this young boy and I'm sure will have a positive impact for most of his adult life.
I was a victim of bullying myself for a better part of 1st and 2nd grades. I was short and strange to others I suspect. I was the kid who was shoved head first into garbage cans and left to rot with feet dangling out! I was the non confrontational type, rather modest and shy with a near sanguine attitude toward suffering in this way, mostly due to my literalist fundamental Christian upbringing. I find it interesting that we as humans tend to hate weakness and pity. Some, after reading the previous sentences might immediately be turned off and feel disquieted by further reading because many only want to spend their time participating in activities or with people that are strong in character. If all knew I was a weakling, I would certainly have fewer friends. This is understandable - we as a nation love winners, not losers and we all have a penchant to survive. You may be more apt to survive if you surround yourself with people of strength of mind and spirit. Is this right - should I invoke the words of David Hume? Just because something is a certain way does not mean it ought to be that way. I never confronted the teasers or bullies with negative emotions or expletives and so the bullying continued for a long time. Nevertheless, the meanness stopped and I became best friends with all the gangstas from elementary school, at least until 6th grade was over. I'm sure many will have had a similar experience being a bully or being bullied and are really no worse or even better off for it. This is not to say that there is a line to not be crossed, and that is were some difficult situations come into they fray.
It is hard to take a child at their word. They are young and may be exaggerating or suffering from social, physical or mental problems. If you were a principle and a child came to you with a complaint against a fellow student, you would be right to remain skeptical. The principle in this film was portrayed as an unfeeling idiot and maybe in some situations she was rather apathetic but she probably has crazy kids and upset parents that visit her everyday with ridiculous problems and over exaggerated experiences. That should be taken into account. This is when a documentary can feel quite skewed in approach. Needless to repeat, the movie is very one sided and only let's you home in on the sob stories of young helpless victims with some very unfortunate, and I would guess, rare instances of suicide from mental bullying anguish. There is no time given in the documentary for the bullies, which I'm sure would be every bit as tragic.
All this said, what can be done? Bullying is a tough nut to crack. When does it go from boys will be boys to all out pure evil teasing and physical harm? I think adults need to be more aware of what is happening around them in schools and be on the lookout for kids that are likely to suffer. It should be obvious and sadly true that we as humans favor the beautiful almost always. A kid with an uneven and hair lipped face with acne and 4 eyes should be a target watch! Human beauty is rather objective, I'd say most would agree on who the most attractive people in the room are, so it should be easy to spot potential candidates for the bullies. This still does not really solve anything. I think the most effective solvent for eradicating the harmful bullying behavior would be as follows: Call an auditorium meeting, tell kids that anyone who thinks they are a victim of any physical or mental abuse should speak out immediately. Explain what this means and that communication is key. Further say that if a person threatens to hurt you if you tell on them that that is even further reason for quick action. Make punishments severe for offenders. Not suspension, which is fun, but something far more detrimental in the immediate future. You have to curb the bullying in some way - the rallying from the film may get some people to take more notice and may even get some people to help stand up for those of us that were weaker in spirit at that age but it is really not a pragmatic solution to this problem. This may be hard to hear but your child is no more special than anyone else's. Tragedy is part of life on this planet. Just because there are a few tragic cases of bullying in the extreme, that does not mean that everyone and everything should change to suit your grief. We as humans tend to only react after tragedy has struck, which is not a great system by any means, we would do better to think more in the preventative. Luckily we are the only mammal who has this gift of prescience.
There is far more to be said on this topic and therefore I welcome any comments for further discourse.
Recommended Viewing: Salesman - The Cove - Bigger, Stronger, Faster
Bob Scale: Objective: 6.5 - Subjective: 6.8
Rotten Tomatoes: 87