As a blizzard batters nowhere Iowa, a nowhere boy sits underground, remembering. While his classmates take the day free from school to live in the moment, to be careless kids building igloos and riding sleds, this boy escapes to the past, watching home video of himself as a happy toddler, swaying to the music his mother plays on the radio.
Alex Hopkins' daily struggle against bullying, clockwork punishment far harsher than the whipping winds of midwestern winter snow, is one of the heart-wrenching stories of isolation and childhoods destroyed featured in filmmaker Lee Hirsch's new documentary, "The Bully Project." A look into the lives -- or, even more sadly, the taken lives -- of victims of extreme bullying, the film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and was quickly picked up by The Weinstein Company, works to personalize the issue of bullying, so often condemned in limp lip-service platitudes, with micro looks that speak to universal suffering.
"I was desperate in the early idea of this film; one of the things I wanted to achieve, or thought was critical to achieve, was to actually present, show bullying as something that was absolutely undeniable or irrefutable," Hirsch said in a long conversation with The Huffington Post. "I think so much of the conversation about bullying is so much in this haze of, is it bad words? Is it a push, is it a shove? Is it just boys being boys? Is it just a conflict that's misconstrued? There's all this sort of haze around what bullying is, and so having kind of experienced it and having my own perspective of what it was, I wanted to be able to show what happens... I just wanted to be in the world with kids that are dealing with it and be able to let their story emerge uncontested."
Hirsch tracked the lives of a number of bullied students throughout the country; each was attacked for a different reason, but the message is that, like in surveys, the sample is representative -- their suffering, caught in both confessional interviews and startling in-school documentary footage, was universal.
After extended conversations, the Sioux City Board of Education gave the filmmaker the go-ahead to film its schools, unhindered, in meetings, the principal's office, bus rides and other spaces were bullying might occur. A year's worth of filming provided unassailable footage of conflict, ostracism, violence and the emotional devastation leveled on a multitude of students. It was in Hopkins, though, that Hirsch found the reluctant face for his story.
"Almost immediately when we started being there, we noticed Alex Hopkins, who is sort of the main character of the film," Hirsch remembered. "We noticed him sitting off by himself. It was as if he didn't exist in the world of the other kids, and so we just started to connect with him and spend time with him and met his family and learn about what he'd been going through. And over the course of the year, things really did just ultimately unfold."
A gawky 12-year old with naturally puckered lips and the social reluctance of an abused puppy, Alex embodied a seemingly perfect target for his adolescent peers. So sweet and kind, but so easy to poke fun at and too timid to defend himself, every bus ride and science class was a tortured obstacle course of headlocks, death threats, seat refusals, chants and pointed insults. For Alex, life was a challenge to be endured.
From the first moments at the bus stop on the first day of school, where a classmate threatens to break his Adam's Apple when he tries to look at his Nintendo DS, Alex is the helpless punching bag of his peers. His puckered lips lead to the unshakeable nickname Fish Face, and his gangly body leaves him defenseless as bigger students crush his head in their arms. Threats of being "f**king ended" and having a "broomstick shoved up [his] ass" were the interludes to punches and pencil stabbings.
Off the bus, he stands alone, off to the side, as fellow students talk and hang out; any attempt at joining them is met with swift rejection, if not rounds of mocking.
What is perhaps most startling about the abuse, though, is that Hirsch's camera wasn't hidden. The daily strikes, chipping away in larger and larger blocks at his dignity, came with the filmmaker ostentatiously on the bus, filming away.
"When you make a documentary and you spend a lot time of somewhere, you kind of start to slip into the wallpaper a little bit," Hirsch said, in trying to explain the students' on-camera cruelty. Having filmed in the school the whole year, they were perhaps comfortable enough with him to ignore him. "I think by the end of the school year, people just stopped noticing us and the kids didn't really care. I don't really believe, from my understanding, and what I know from Alex and his family, that what happened on those days that I filmed was sort of any worse or any better; if anything, it was pretty normal for those types of things to happen on a daily basis."
While Alex was on an island in land locked Sioux City, he is hardly alone in his experiences. For all its intolerance, bullying is an equal opportunity offender; students the nation over suffer its indignity.
"The Bully Project" creates a collage of the bullied; one of the more prominent subjects is an openly lesbian high school student named Kelby, a sweet 16-year old whose only regret should be having been born in what she calls "Bible Belt" Oklahoma. A popular high school basketball star, Kelby's world turned against her when she came out. Classmates, teachers and family friends mocked, ignored and rejected her; calls of "faggot," dismissal from her basketball team and fleeing as she entered a room led to self-mutilation, and, ultimately, three unsuccessful attempts at suicide.
"Kelby came from being super popular, from being a star athlete, and then when she came out, everything changed for her," Hirsch explained. "Just her whole world changed."
Her story, though, is in some ways one of hope. Unlike Alex, Kelby did have a few loyal friends; to look into her radiant eyes while with them, versus her despondent face as she fought tears alone, is to so clearly see the difference a few accepting and brave people can make.
"I know that she had that support group and I know that it sustained her in a really profound way, in a really deep way," Hirsch remembered.
Luckily, Kelby also has parents that could accept her for her reality; it's counter-intuitive to call someone suffering so much lucky -- but often, the major perspectival shift her parents undertook doesn't occur amongst those whose children are openly gay. Kelby's coming out inspired her father to rethink his entire worldview, his entire sense of the world and notions of sin, virtue, right and wrong.
The film also explores the crushing reality of bullying-induced suicide, following the grieving process of families that lost children who could no longer handle the loneliness and mockery. To look into their eyes is to view hurt on a level nearly incomprehensible; to listen to their stories is to not understand how humans can be so cruel to one another. When a child as young as 11 years old sees no choice but to take his own life, the message of the film takes on a dark and urgent tone.
There is hope, however. Viewers are taken into the world of the anti-bullying movement, a grassroots uprising to foster understanding and compassion in a world of inexplicable cruelty. Hirsch has a way of injecting optimism, allowing faith in the human spirit in the face of so much ugliness. The people he follows in "The Bully Project" are truly good people, and the bet is that if we can understand their message, and feel their pain, the mindless aggression can finally end.
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