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Tribeca Film Festival: 'The Bully Project'

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4/12/2012 Update: "Bully" will go into wider release Friday now that the Motion Picture Association of America agreed to give it a PG-13 rating instead of an R in exchange for removing a few obscenities.

3/5/2012 Update: Fresh off his Oscar glory with "The Artist," Harvey Weinstein is protesting the R rating received by "Bully," (formerly called "The Bully Project"), which his Weinstein Co. is releasing.

"The Bully Project" is a documentary that follows five students and families over the course of a school year as they face bullying and its consequences. The film captures the distress of these victims, their families' frustrations, and the grief that follows when bullying goes too far. WNYC's Jennifer Hsu sat down with filmmaker Lee Hirsch, who was born in Long Island and now lives in Manhattan, to discuss his motivation behind making the film and what he hopes will be the film's power to affect positive change.

Jennifer Hsu: You've mentioned before that this movie is deeply personal. Were you bullied as a child?

Lee Hirsch: Yes, I was bullied, and what I took away from that was this sort of sense of frustration with communicating what it means to be bullied--particularly when I was a kid. Trying to speak about it and brushing up against these attitudes of 'boys will be boys' and 'man up' and 'toughen up.' I think that was what our collective response to bullying was and the idea with this film is to shatter that. I think you can have a real conversation.

JH: Was it difficult for you to make the film?

LH: It was difficult but it was amazing too, because many of the kids who were participating were also suffering in the same dialogue that I had been in my own head. So being able to enter into their lives as someone who cared, as a listener, to validate their feelings and to be seen as someone who can be successful and be able to come into their town and spend time with them and listen, it was really rewarding. I think the impact that the team or myself was able to have on the lives of the kids I worked with was really significant. It was like everyone in the film was a partner in the film. 

JH: What do you hope to achieve with the film?

LH: We hope that "The Bully Project" is going to be a film that ignites a movement. There is so much need out there across the nation—to organize, to have a way of creating a voice for families that are struggling with this issue. We envision school-hall meetings across the country, where the film is able to spark a conversation that is honest and real but it doesn't emerge out of crisis. I think all too often when people talk about bullying, it's because there is death or some act of violence and everyone has their backs up. I think if we are able to enter into this community with the right partners I think we can have a huge impact. The goal is to just build this massive movement that has tools and that has actionable activity that can really help community, family and individuals deal with this issue in a concrete way.

JH: What do you think the solution is to combat bullying?

LH: I try and go quiet on those questions because I'm not an expert. I'm a filmmaker. But we grappled with that for a long time. We wanted to say something in the film that was solution-based. Each and every person who sees the film is the one who has the power to be the change. It sounds cheesy but if this film gives students the push to be that bystander who intervenes, then that is a huge change. They can make a huge change in their circle and in their school and community--that's immediate. I think we want people to talk about: What are the schools' roles? What are the responsibilities of administrators and school climates? A lot of the time, we have spoken about test scores and what schools are succeeding and we've looked at a certain set of criteria, and I would say that perhaps it's time to look at climate.

Educators and administrators have to set a climate where students are taken seriously when they report bullying. People have picked up on scenes where administrators haven't dealt with a situation properly in the film. Just being able to look at that scene and talk about that and be able to relate to that moment as educators is something that is really profound. 

JH: Who is the one person living or dead that you'd like to see your film?

LH: It's funny. Facebook is that community where we reconnect our past in all these different ways and I've had kids who have bullied me in the past write in. They've donated. They've been following the project. It's really interesting how circles of my life are reconnecting through this film in really amazing ways. I would like it if the President or the First Lady saw this film and it would reach those individuals who have the power to really make a difference.


JH: What is your favorite movie set in New York City?

LH: It has to be "Do the Right Thing." Hands down. 

"The Bully Project" will be screened on Saturday, April 23 at 4 P.M. at the AMC Loews Village 7 - 2. It will also be screened on April 26, 27 and 30.