By Phoebe Driscoll
Special To The Standard
Pentangle’s showing of the harrowing documentary raises eyebrows, in more ways than one.
Last weekend, the Pentangle Art Council sponsored four 7:30 p.m. showings of the Sundance documentary Bully, from Friday through Monday at the Woodstock Town Hall. Directed by Emmy-award winning Lee Hirsch and produced by Hirsh and Cynthia Lowen, Bully is a haunting depiction of harassment within U.S. schools. The documentary follows the lives of five students and their everyday interactions with bullies, friends and family.
The film begins with grainy video footage of the late Tyler Long of Murray County, Georgia. A father with red-rimmed eyes laments his son’s death, and remarks that Long—who was seventeen when he took his own life—will never “walk through the front door again.”
In Sioux City, Iowa, an unfeasibly stoic camera crew observes 12-year-old Alex Libby, a boy with a slight lip defect due to a premature birth. The crew films Libby at a bus stop in a bleak neighborhood as two boys harass him, making crude remarks and grim threats.
Tuttle County, Oklahoma. Here, 16-year-old, openly gay Kelby Johnson is met with homophobic persecution at her school. She has tried to commit suicide on three separate occasions. She sums up her town as follows: “Tuttle. Country Town. Friday night games. Bible Belt, Oklahoma.”
In Yazoo, Mississippi, we meet Ja’Meya Jackson. The 14-year-old is a victim of racial discrimination; ostracized by her peers, Jackson brandished her mother’s loaded gun on a school bus and now faces 45 felony charges.
Ty Field-Smally of Perkins, Oklahoma, was one month away from completing the sixth grade when he shot himself. The film crew documents his modest funeral at a small church; at one point, Field-Smally’ father remarks that they (his family, we are to assume) are “nobody.” It is an ambiguous statement that I construed as a subtle—or perhaps inadvertent—nod to a geographic disadvantage.
The documentary is adroitly constructed: at times heartbreaking, at times optimistic, and consistently in search of a solution. For the most part, each personal saga involves a relatively unresponsive administrative body; it becomes clear that, in the eyes of most parents as well as the Bully production crew, this is where the problem—and eventual resolution—resides.
My only criticism of the film is in regards to selectivity: with the exception of Sioux City, each area documented has a population count of less than 10,000 people, and each area is located in the Southeast region of the U.S. Each area’s victims attend relatively large, public middle or high schools. While shying away from private schools and larger cities creates an impactful 94 minutes of bleak, small-town bigotry, it also makes Bully appear misrepresentative on a national scope.
My analysis of the documentary itself, however, is considerably more forgiving than that of its reception in central Vermont. I saw the documentary on Saturday and did a quick head count: about fifteen individuals. Sunday night, I went back, as the previous evening’s search for passionate and opinionated feedback had been fruitless. Sunday’s tally? Eight individuals. If the central issue of Bully is an indifferent administrative body, perhaps the central issue of its reception is a largely nonexistent turnout.
After much legal strife, the Classification and Rating Administration granted Bully a PG-13 rating in April of 2012, as the Weinstein production company had expressed concern that an R rating would prevent critical age groups from viewing the film. Thus, as far as I see, there’s no excuse for a virtually empty theatre.
Woodstock resident Nan Bourne was one of few townspeople who voiced her opinion after the viewing. “I’m here with my friend Emily Jones, who remarked, ‘This movie should be shown in schools; it is unexpectedly powerful.’ I felt the same way,” she said.
Curious, I attempted to reach out to several teachers and administrators in the immediate area, in the hopes of assessing local efforts regarding the issue of bullying. The results were sparse, but encouraging. Justifiably, Woodstock Elementary School principal Karen White feels that parents should make the judgment call in terms of whether or not their child is prepared to witness some of the footage in Bully (a link to the Pentangle Arts Council appears on the front page of the elementary school’s site).
In the mean time, White has taken considerable measures to initiate change. White and Family School Coordinator Erin Klocek have taken the lead in creating a student-run Safe School Committee designed to “address issues of bullying in the school community” and “promote both social and emotional safety.” Additionally, White mans an electronic reporting system, in which faculty members can enter incidents into a database that notifies both White and Klocek. White views the system as an opportunity to educate rather than admonish.
I have yet to hear back from administrative figures at other schools within the area. Yet if their initiatives are as extensive as those being launched at WES, I think it is safe to remain tentatively hopeful in regards to local efforts towards educational progression.
A poll on the Vermont Standard web site asks if the low attendance at the showings of ‘Bully’ reflects the public’s general concern about the issue of bullying. See the poll below.