Bully, a film directed by Lee Hirsch.

At one time, it was received truth that a documentary comprised the obverse of the Hollywood fiction feature. By its very nature, the documentary discovered the world, whatever world, as it ‘really’ was. The idea documentian, from this perspective, was like a Taoist master:
an absolute neutral, like purest water reflecting back to the viewer only what his camera beheld.

Of course, this is purest balderdash. Much as a documentarian consciously strives to efface his persona, the work will inevitabloy be shaped by one or another subjective bias. Not necessarily a bad thing:

Robert Flaherty’s film of Eskimo life in his iconic Nanook of the North
is inflected by his Anglo perspective, but it remains a craftworthy, deeply affecting film. On the other hand, ignoble bias, conscious or otherwise, has tainted excellent work. Leni Riefenstahl’s stunning capture of athletic power and grace in Olympiad, her account of the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics is undermined by the fascist mentality which is so odiously blatant in Triumph of the Will, her depiction of the 1934 Nuremberg Nazi party rally.

Contemporary documentarians do not shy away from declaring personal and political biases. Two schools have emerged in this regard. One features the directors’ active presence. Errol Morris’ gentle off-camera questions are heard throughout his films. His unvarying discretion is a tool which renders his revelation of unsettling truths all the more powerful.

In The Thin Blue Line, his relentless inquiry into police and prosecuturial bungling freed the innocent victim from execution, and lead to the conviction of the real murderer. In The Fog of War, under Morris’ gentle probing, a tearful Robert McNamara disclosed his culpability in our Viet Nam debacle.

Michael Moore is an unabashed in-your-face polemicist. In Roger and I, his provocative encounters with General Motor executives enabled a scorching exposure of the corporation’s despicable prizing of profitability over protecting a devoted Flint, Michigan work force from destitution. But as Moore himself has become a leftist poster-boy, his films are increasingly married by his trademark intrusiveness gone hyperbolic. The director now often seems to fancy his own fastidiously messy persona as much his subject, as the venal establishment under his attack.

In the other major current documentary trend, the maker’s maintains a deliberate unobtrusiveness. The film is free of an ‘omnipotent’ narrator, whose God-like pronouncements actually distances the viewer from the subject. Here, the material alone speaks the message. Images and sounds may be real, staged, or a combination of both. This ‘cinema verite’ practise is commonly traced back to Fifties and Sixties indie and documentary cinema, here and abroad (France, notably). However, one discovers verite techniques in Riefenstahl’s sinister craft, and even further back in the silent era, e.g. in Jean Vigo’s hilarious send-up of the idle rich in his 1923 short A Propos De Nice.

Fredrick Wiseman is the old master of American documentary verite, still at work today (he says he doesn’t like the verite label, because it’s too neutral from his engaged – and quietly enraged – political perspective. His 1967 debut, The Titicut Follies, exposed the scarifying milieu of a Massachussetts hospital for the criinally insane. Since then, he’s exquisitely investigated institutional practises and relationships of – inter alia – a high school, hospital, ballet company, welfare agency, and legislature. His cool but always compassionate vision has shaped important pictures like Hoop Dreams (Steve James’ 1994 moving account of inner-city ‘teen pro-basketball hopefuls), and Grey Gardens (the Mayles’ brothers 1975 tragi-comic portrayal of folie-a-deuxed mother/daughter socialites, descended into desparate circumstances.

Director/producer Lee Hirsh brings Wiseman’s engaged politics and documentary strategies to his new docuemntary, Bully. It explores the endemic persecution of the hapless weak by their largely unrepentant oppressors in American schools. Hirsch also exposes the frequent crass, if unwitting, sanction of bullying by the very school officials mandated to protect present victims and protect future harm. His courage in address this immense and still largely ignored issue is admirable; his commitment to its eradication absolute. But he doesn’t own nearly enough of Wiseman’s expertise at the vocabulary of documentary argument to stroke a viewer head-on, as with the astonishing rawnes of The Titicut Follies. Of which, more presently.

Hirsch advances his arguments via the actual and narrated experiences of five victims, their families and associates, all from working- to middle-class backgrounds. Two youngsters are already dead by their own hands as the film begins, so others must speak of, and for them. Alex is a socially awkward Iowa middle-schooler, unrelentingly ridiculed as ‘fishface’. Kelby had a bright athletic and scholastic future at her Oklahoma high school, until she bravely left the closet. Now most kids – and, incredibly, some teachers – ridicule her openly, while her once widely admired family is being wrenchingly shunned by their community, fellow churchmembers included. Ja’Maya, a shy Mississippi ‘teen, was so mortified by savage schoolbus taunting that she took a gun onboard to threaten her perseuctors, and was promptly thrown in jail.

In classic verite mode, Bully has no narration. Hirsch deliberately – and to my mind wisely – avoids the usual parade of expert talking heads, who spout mind-numbing stats; cite uncertain causes; and recommend contradictory or unworkable solutions. The viewer’s conclusions will be drawn from what Virginia Wool called ‘the cotton wool of everyday life’: from establishing shots of the various small town and city locales; from what young and older characters say and do; at home, in typical schoolday milieus – buses, classrooms, lunchrooms, recess yards; hallways; offices); at community meetings; public protests – and, tragically, at funerals.

As far as I could determine, there was no hidden camera surreptitiously gathering evidence. Bullies are in plain sight. Most don’t appear particularly villainous away from their nasty business. One is struck by how native bullying is, not just to the perpetrators, but to most of the kids who stand by as neutrals, or participate vicariously: a pencil-poke or passing slap here; a vicious insult there. Even more painful is the passivity of the bullied. They’ve obviously learned to go along to get along, and avoid worse.mars

originally published on Psychiatric Times

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