Film #25: Bully
(Director: Lee Hirsch)
The problem with Lee Hirsch’s Bully is one of intent. What is Bully trying to achieve? If it is merely to bring attention to bullying, I’m not sure that Lee Hirsch tells us anything we didn’t already know. Yes, the kids that get bullied are human and it hurts them. Yes, the families that lose children to suicide hurt too. It isn’t that these things aren’t worthy of being documented. In fact, this film is full of powerful moments around these very things. The problem is that Hirsch is so committed to his hands-off style that the film often stops when it could really push forward into interesting avenues. There are even moments where that stylistic choice puts Hirsch into ethically questionable situations.
Bully is pretty frank in its depiction of bullying. This film received some notoriety when the MPAA initially decided to give it an R rating because of language. The filmmakers and their supporters argued that this would deny the film to its intended audience, school-age children who are both the perpetrators and recipients of bullying. The rating was changed after a few edits. And there are definitely some troubling sequences. In particular, the main subject of the film, Alex, is often shown being physically assaulted. While these scenes are incredibly sad, its actually more troubling that Hirsch doesn’t intervene. He just sits back, records, and lets the abuse happen. Later, he shows the tape to Alex’s parents and it’s left to them to go to the school and try and get something done. Regardless of his desire to stay neutral in the filmmaking process, wouldn’t Bully have been much more insightful and powerful if Hirsch had confronted Alex’s bullies as they were hitting him? Wouldn’t it have been much more interesting and provocative to force the bullies to explain themselves?
The most interesting sequence in the film also illustrates this weakness. After the bus incident, Alex’s parents confront the vice-principal, Kim Lockwood. As they explain to Lockwood what has happened, she says that she’s ridden that bus and that those students are “good as gold.” She then deflects their inquiries as to what will happen with pictures of her newly-born grandkid. It’s a surreal exchange that paints Lockwood as willfully and devastatingly ignorant. As disappointing as her handling of the situation is, what’s even more disappointing is that the meeting just ends. We know that Hirsch has the footage! Why doesn’t he force this idiot to explain how the same students that slam Alex’s head into a seat are “good as gold”? Why doesn’t he do any sort of investigation into the school district policies that may hamper Lockwood’s ability to root out bullying?
The observational, verité style works in some instances, but it really is a matter of subject. This would have been a more powerful, provocative documentary if Hirsch was willing to open up and become more responsive to what was happening in front of his cameras. Instead, we get a documentary that tells us what we already know.
Film #26: The House I Live In
(Director: Eugene Jarecki)
In contrast to Bully, Jarecki’s investigation into the war on drugs, The House I Live In, follows each new question raised to its logical conclusion. It works more as a video essay than a documentary, which is to its benefit and its detriment.
The House I Live In links the nation’s war on drugs with its endemic racism. According to Jarecki, each new movement in the battle was spurred by a new ethnic tension. The wave of Chinese immigrants into California led to the criminalization of opium, the influx of migrant workers from Latin America led to the illegalization of marijuana, and the introduction of crack cocaine led to unfair punishments towards blacks. This is a compelling argument, and depending on your worldview, a sadly believable one. I could see people objecting that this view of the war on drugs over-simplifies the issue and unfairly turns criminals into victims, but it’s hard to deny the timeline.
Luckily, he doesn’t let this linkage blind him from the newest wave in the war on drugs, meth. This is primarily a white drug, and thus poor whites are the most affected. Here, Jarecki opens up and explains the economics of drug use and drug policing. From the user’s end, drug use is generally spurred on by economic struggle, and the poor are disproportionately imprisoned (this is illustrated in the radical discrepancy between minimum sentences for possession of equivalent amounts of crack and cocaine). From the enforcement perspective, the war on drugs has become an economic boon. Cities are built and sustained by local prisons, enforcement agencies use money taken in raids to fund themselves, and prisons are run by private industries that must make a profit. Thus, we are left with a cycle that just intensifies itself with little hope of actually helping the people affected by drug use.
As a teacher of argumentative writing, I just love how efficiently this is put together. Each link in the chain is perfectly placed next to the one before it, and by the end, it’s forms a pretty convincing whole. It isn’t a particularly artistic documentary and certainly not one that takes many creative leaps, but it achieves exactly what it set out to.