Friday, April 20, 2012

Reflection: The Bully Movie

By now, I'm pretty sure most school counselors have heard of the movie, Bully, either from the publicity concerning the controversy over its rating, or from parents, students, or colleagues who are talking about it.  For those of in education, I think it has been one of the most anticipated major release films in a long time.  As school counselors, we tend to be pretty aware of the issue of bullying, as we are often some of the first people that students and parents come to when there is a concern.  Further, we work hard to implement preventative measures in our schools like the Olweus program, and we also employ mediation skills, such as restorative justice, to help resolve conflicts while teaching empathy skills.  Before the movie was released, the questions that seemed to be on everyone's mind was about whether the film would reflect what bullying truly looks like in our schools, and whether all of the various stakeholders (parents, students, school personnel, police) would be reflected in an honest way.


In the film, there are some narratives that are very powerful and, I believe, reflective of some of the realities of our students.  The story of Alex, a student who ultimately gets beaten-up on a bus by another high-school student, will resonate with many of us.  Kelby, the gay student in Oklahoma who is ostracized and harassed at her school by students and teachers alike.  Ja'Meya, a young woman who ultimately fights back, but in a way that changes her own life forever.  Because the film-makers had such unlimited access to these children, they are able to show the impact that the bullying has had on the students and their families, and, in the case of Alex, what the bullying actually looks like on a day-to-day basis.  That is, I think, the film's strength: allowing the audience to empathize and feel what the bullying has done to these adolescents.  Alex undergoes daily harassment, and yet seems to indicate at one point that the people who are harassing him are his "friends."  Kelby, by the end, no longer feels comfortable attending school.  Ja'Meya is incarcerated for a period of time, with the charges ultimately being dropped, but it is fairly clear that the bullying and resulting incident have taken a large emotional toll on both her and her family.  There are moments of hope, strength, and resiliency--Kelby and her family having grown closer and stronger through the adversity, for example.  Ultimately, I would recommend that school counselors make an effort to also see the movie, but there are some things that I believe should be taken into account.
  • Do some prep work beforehand, especially if you are going in a group.  There is a guide available at FacingHistory.org that has activities for adults and students alike both before going to see the movie as well as after.  They include definitions of bullying, ostracism, and synopses with guiding questions to help as you are watching the film, and then discussion questions and role-plays to follow-up.  If you are using the film as a teaching tool or a call to action, these materials can help to make any work done before and/or after much more meaningful and structured.
  • Understand that this is a film that has been edited to fit the director's vision.  This may sound harsh, but it is very clearly explained in the guide by the director himself.  The filmmakers spent a year filming a multitude of stories and at a multitude of schools, and many things did not make it into the film as they did not fit the "dramatic arc." They filmed at a high-school in Sioux City in addition to the middle school: 
"West [High School] had and continues to have really strong and good leadership, and a really strong mentoring program. The difference in culture was like night and day. You could feel it when you walked into the building. You felt it immediately that you were in a different kind of place, where people treated each other better. Ultimately we weren’t able to piece together a story out of West, in part because good climate and culture don’t manifest themselves as drama...the West High stories were really, really hard to leave out. It was the same kind of phone call: 'Hey we filmed in your school for an entire year, but you’re not in the movie. Why? Because you were doing things too well.'"  (Facing History and Ourselves, 2012). 
It is important to know this because the director has clearly organized and selected scenes from the movie for the purpose of evoking certain emotions.  Feeling moved to anger, frustration, laughter, etc. by the stories included is natural, but understand that the film is edited to help you access those feelings.
  • On that note, the film does not depict programs that have succeeded in helping to create a school-culture that does not tolerate bullying.  This was one thing that concerned me about the film--it does not show examples of programs that have worked, of schools that have gotten a handle on bullying successfully.  There are some parts of the guide that seem to be "Olweus" inspired, but the film seems to be a call-to-action and a catalyst for discussion more than a means of offering solutions to the issue.  As school counselors, we should be prepared to fill in this gap and share information about successful programs if we are using this as a means to begin dialogue on the topic within our school communities. 
  • Be careful of making the leap from bullying to suicide.  Two articles were forwarded to me by colleagues this week about the film.  The first, from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, is concerned with the film's depiction of bullying being a cause of suicide for two of the stories in the film.  The article wants to make clear that bullying can be a trigger for mental illnesses such as depression which can, in extreme cases, lead to suicide, but that bullying is almost never a direct "cause of suicide.  Further, in a Slate.com article, there are some concerns that the mental illness of one of the students in the film who committed suicide was left out of the story entirely, leaving the viewers to conclude that it was the bullying that drove him to kill himself, when in reality it may have been one of many triggers or compounding factors of his mental illness.
Overall, I believe this is an important movie that shines a light on a serious issue for our students.  However, as school counselors we must be able to separate the emotions conveyed in the film from facts and research.  If we are able to view this film with background knowledge of how it was edited, the director's intent, as well as an understanding of how bullying and suicide are linked and how they are not, it can be a very powerful and eye-opening tool for us as well as our school communities.

The following guide was referenced in this post:
Facing History and Ourselves. (2012) A guide to the film BULLY: fostering empathy and action in our schools.  Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, Inc: Brookline, MA.
Thanks to Valerie Hardy of FCPS and Dr. Erin Mason for the two articles on the movie and its depiction of suicide.

1 comment:

  1. Good points, Darrell. I, too, was hoping for more "hope" in the form of information about what we can do to stop bullying. The rallies at the end were emotional, but didn't leave us with much in the way of an action plan. Bully underscored that bullying is a problem, but the predictable audience of this film already knew that.

    To be fair, most documentaries end up preaching to the choir; in this case youth and adult advocates who are already concerned about bullying. As I left the theatre, I asked myself who I would want to see the film other than the predictable audience. Answer: dads. Dads have tremendous power as culture bearers in their homes and communities. Rarely are they motivated to think much about bullying unless their own child is a victim of severe abuse. If ALL dad's became involved in the fight against bullying, as did the two whose sons died, we'd see real progress.

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