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Director Lee Hirsch on Bully’s MPAA Rating Battle and the Impact of the F-Word

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'Bully,' a film that recently received an R rating from the MPAA to the chagrin of its distributor, the Weinstein Company, will screen at the 2012 True/False Film Fest

'Bully,' a film that recently received an R rating from the MPAA, screened at the 2012 True/False Film Fest.

In my corner of the world, there’s a fair amount of cynicism about The Weinstein Company’s battle with the MPAA over its R rating for the documentary Bully. The issue everyone has been talking about is that if Bully gets an R, then schools won’t be allowed to show it.

But is the fracas is really just Harvey Weinstein’s way to drum up publicity? I was inclined to be sympathetic to this view. Weinstein is indeed very good at stirring up interest in his films. And I didn’t really think that the inclusion of F-words in a documentary should be worth such hoopla. I figured that a compromise, like bleeping the offending words, would be an obvious solution.

But then I did two things: I saw Bully, and I spoke with its director, Lee Hirsch, while attending last week’s True/False documentary film festival in Columbia, Missouri.

“It’s really legitimate,” Hirsch said before a screening. “I asked [The Weinstein Company] to fight with me. And Harvey has strong feelings about it. We thought we would win the appeal. Harvey actually left the hearing with tears in her eyes.”

There’s plenty of misinformation out there because most people writing about the controversy haven’t seen the film. That’s why you’ll read that the documentary is epithet-strewn, when it is not. There are maybe four instances in which the F-word is used.

“This movie isn’t f—, f—, f—, f—, f—,” Lee said. “And the uses of f— are real and integral to understanding what happens and I don’t think those experiences should be watered down. The experience that these kids go through should be as it is.”

Hirsch himself was bullied as a kid, so he knows of what he speaks. “People’s narratives of being bullied is repeatedly watered down: ‘It’s not that bad.’ ‘It’s just kids being kids.’ When you take away the power that comes from the language, you take away the impact of what that kid is going through. So I feel strongly that it shouldn’t happen.”

Hirsch had won me over before the lights dimmed, but seeing the film only strengthened by feelings. The instances of cursing are indeed important to hear. The experiences of these kids are indeed harsh, but that’s the point of the movie, to shine a light on the brutalizing of children across America.

They use the word “epidemic” in the description of bullying, and this film makes a strong case that such a strong word is appropriate. The film is raw and explicit in its emotions so that when those words are uttered, they don’t stand out particularly. It’s not said to get a rise out of the audience. The words are part of the context. And the context is far more harsh than a four-letter word.

Bully is so much more than just those curse words, and I bet it’s been frustrating for Hirsch to see the attention drawn to it. What really matters here is that Bully is an incredibly powerful and important portrait of a problem that needs to be addressed. Getting caught up in the MPAA scuffle and Weinstein’s motivations dishonors the experiences so many kids go through every time they get on the school bus.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Tim

    The issue has never been about whether the filmmaker is legitimate (he is), or whether the language in the film is legitimate (it is). It’s a fine film, on an important topic. My ‘cynicism’ about the marketing of this campaign comes only from the promotion of the fallacy you repeat in your opening paragraph – that if the film has an R rating, it cannot be shown in schools. This simply isn’t true.

    The MPAA regulates theaters that chose to abide by MPAA rules. Nothing else, and especially not schools. There are also thousands of independent theaters, community centers, arts venues and the like that the MPAA does not regulate. The Weinstein Company could show this film there, and bus in kids, with no problem. In fact, it already is showing the film (uncut) in schools across the country, again with no problems. Because it has likely asked these schools if they would like to show the film, and the authority of the decision resting solely with them, they have said yes. That’s all it takes. Some may have said no, on grounds of language, or maybe length, and that’s up to them to decide, too.

    So, why the fuss? Because while that is clearly the best model for the film to reach the audience that needs to see the film, that’s not the Weinstein distribution model, and won’t make them as much money at the box office, or bring the film as much attention.

    If it has been “frustrating” for Hirsch to see attention drawn to this issue, he should take it up with his distributor, who have been sending out multiple press releases on this alone for the past two weeks. You are absolutely right that “getting caught up in the MPAA scuffle and Weinstein’s motivations
    dishonors the experiences so many kids go through every time they get on
    the school bus.” That’s why choosing this marketing campaign tactic around misinformation over the R-rating, when there was no need to create an outrage given the many other options available for reaching their audience, is totally worth cynicism and scorn.

    • Rina8301

      Many options available for reaching audiences? We don’t need this film to be shown at one local playhouse this film needs to be shown in every movie theatre across the country so that kids can go see it with their peers and not just with their parents. You are right the model of distribution is to reach the largest audience possible because every day our kids and committing suicide because they can’t take the pain inflicted on them by their peers who judge them. Won’t make them as much money you say, this documentary is not about making the Weinstein Company rich it is about saving lives and sending a message ” We are fed up with society and how people and parents think this is not an issue.” Beautiful souls are crying out for help….

    • Doc Soup Man

      Tim,

      I’ll duck your “‘cynicism’” and dodge your hatchet to applaud you for your critical thinking. Although an R rating would inevitably reduce kids’ access to seeing the film, this issue of exactly how kids would be prevented from seeing it, especially in a school setting, warrants deeper inquiry.

  • The_angel_207

    Seriously? thats really ignorant! these kids here worse than the F—- word @ home & in movies they let their kids watch! i can promise if i ever get that movie my kid WILL watch it whether its rated R or not! kids need 2 c the importance & reality of how bullying is ruining childrens/teenagers lives. & really who cares if its legitimate or if they just tryin 2 make $ off it…as long as ours kids learn b4 it too late that treatin other people like trash cuz how they dress or where they live or how much $ they got ect…is wrong! & 2 b quite honest i think the majority of the prob is the parents fault…u have 2 teach ur kids to respect every1 no matter what & if the parents cant teach them maybe this movie will! this movie should be nationwide in every single school & should be mandatory 2 watch!

  • Nonniemw

    I talked to my 12 yr-old (6th grade) grandson lastnight for the 1st time in a few weeks and he told me he had gotten in school suspension for slapping the kid that has been harrassing him all year.  The other kid got lunch suspension. This young man who is a very kind person is angry, and I I’m afraid for him.  He gets shoved into his locker, tripped and kicked, tripped and his long braid stood on,  called “China lady”,stupid, gay, at least one of those things on almost a daily basis.  His flute got destroyed, and he dropped out of band which he really wanted to take but had enough! 
    I asked him if he could go talk to someone, perhaps the principle,  during lunch break, he said yes, but then would miss out on the little time he has to have a good time with his firends.  2 of them are 7th graders & the other 2 are on a different “team” ie; not in his classes.  He is not a stupid person, but does struggle with school because of slight dyslexia and a poor working memory.  He is half Native American, with beautiful light brown skin, with hair that is half way down his back.  Some how he manages to retain his awesome sense of humor, at least at times.
    I have promoted this movie and signed 2 petitions, and will continue to promote this movie and speak out about this horrendous problem.   

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