Monday, April 25, 2011

Tribeca ’11: The Bully Project

They say kids will be kids. Maybe that is true, but why can’t adults act like adults? While the behavior of some sadistic students is reprehensible, the craven strategies employed by teachers and administrators to avoid responsibility for those in their care might be even more shocking in Lee Hirsch’s documentary, The Bully Project (trailer here), which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

By now, we know public schools are not teaching kids at an acceptable level. If they are unable to at least maintain a safe classroom environment, what is the point of it all, beyond employing a battalion of bureaucrats? Putting a face on the issue, Hirsch follows several students, whose school experiences are fast approaching tragedy, and a pair of grieving parents, who have recently lost sons to bullying-inspired suicide. Everyone will feel for the Longs and the Smalleys on a human level. Unfortunately, as the school year progresses in Sioux City, the audience will start to worry a similar fate awaits the parents of fourteen year-old Alex.

Unlike far too many verité documentarians, who let the cameras roll while abusive and dangerous behavior is underway (take Prodigal Sons as one of many examples), Hirsh broke protocol, to his estimable credit, showing his footage of the abuse leveled on Alex to his parents and the administrators of West High. The former responded with shock and concern. The latter kicked into serious CYA overdrive.

Based on the footage of BP, unless Hirsch and editors Lindsay Utz and Jenny Golden maliciously framed her in the editing room, the West High Vice Principal charged with maintaining discipline is an absolute disgrace, who has no business working in a school, in any capacity. Her behavior surpasses denial, bordering on outright collusion. She applies a wholly inappropriate moral equivalency, forcing battered victims to “shake and make-up” with their bullies, or be labeled “just as bad as they are.” When confronted with her abject failure, she falls back on legalisms, pointing specific discrete torments that she might have technically put a stop to, but resulted in escalating abuse, which she duly ignored to preserve her deniability. Frankly, any objective observer could tell Alex has trouble verbalizing his concerns. He is exactly the kind of kid she is there to protect. Shame on her.

Much of Hirsch’s footage is a cold hard slap in the face. Yet, it is so closely tied into its titular advocacy campaign, it detracts from BP as a work of cinema. Indeed, the final twenty minutes or so chronicles rallies and offer avenues for viewers to get involved. Fair enough, it is Hirsch’s film that he conceived in conjunction with the larger Bully Project movement. Yet, the legislation they advocate would not be necessary, if teachers and administrators would start doing their jobs. Perhaps shaming them in the community would be more efficacious than lobbying state capitols.

BP will convince viewers the bullying “issue” is not mere network newsmagazine hype, but a real and pressing problem for many children. A film that will generate audience sympathy and anger, BP screens again at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival tomorrow (4/26), Wednesday (4/27), and Saturday (4/30).