We live in an age where bullying appears to be on the increase. In both the UK and the USA stories in the media of horrific bullying of young people resulting in them taking their own lives are sadly more commonplace than not.
Stories of corporate bullying highlighted in the press indicate that bullying affects adult lives as much as children and with the explosion of the internet and social networking a new platform has been created for invisible bullies to wage their wars. These category of bullies often referred to as 'cyber bullies' and 'trolls' may not always end up causing physical harm to their victims but the psychological wounds they inflict are just as damaging, if not sometimes more.
Whichever way you look at it, bullying is a social issue affecting all of us that shows no sign of dissipating and ultimately it rears its ugly head in childhood in the school yard.
It follows that the documentary film BULLY directed by Lee Hirsch and produced by the Weinstein Company and released recently in the United States is incredibly timely. Over the course of a year the film charts the journey of three bullied teenagers and their families as well as two families whose young sons committed suicide as a result of being bullied.
Even before the release of the film in the United States (and indeed before it is even released in the UK where the BBFC tell me they have yet to receive the film for classification) the film hit the headlines across the globe in a very public battle with the MPAA with regards to its R rating meaning under 17s, the very audience the documentary targets and relates to, were banned from going to see it of their own free will.
The battle is now fairly well documented but for those not in the know, Harvey Weinstein, never one to cow down to a decision he thinks is wrong, decided to circumvent the MPAA and allow the movie to be classed as Unrated meaning cinema complexes would need to decide for themselves whether or not to screen it as PG13 or R.
The MPAA stuck to its guns stating that irrespective of the artistic and social merits of a piece it had to comply with the ratings criteria and accordingly BULLY merited its rating.
After an online campaign spearheaded by a bullied teen to change the rating and supported by a whole host of celebrities and a publicity war waged so well by the veteran producer and tough guy Harvey Weinstein along with some editing concessions (the removal of the F word in a few instances but NOT importantly the removal of a horrific scene where one of the protagonists of the movie is physically as well as verbally abused) the film has now been given its rightful rating of PG13, which frankly it should have had all along.
I went to watch the film on its opening weekend in Los Angeles when it was still unrated. Like many others I was bullied whilst at primary school and the same individuals continued to torment me for many years after I had left that school and gone onto a different secondary school. Given this experience I knew I would be particularly sensitive to the film and went to watch it apprehensively, armed with a wad of tissues. Within a few minutes I knew I was going to run out of tissues pretty quickly. Director Lee Hirsch deserves credit for providing a deeply sensitive yet equally raw insight into the kind of bullying which has become an epidemic in schools not only in America but also in the UK. I have rarely sat and watched a film where the audience (including many parents with their children) have been so vocal or emotional. There were silent tears (and in my case and that of a few others uncontrollable sobbing) watching the heart wrenching scenes relaying the utter devastation of the parents who found themselves burying their young sons; children who should never have come to feel that their only option was to no longer exist.
There were gasps of horror at the continuous utterly criminal, barbaric abuse and violence hurled at Alex one of the protagonists of the documentary. And finally exasperated shouts of frustration at the utter lack of empathy and responsibility shown by those in positions of authority who could have and should have done so much more to protect these children, yet instead were utterly toothless, beyond inept and dare I say, in my opinion; negligent. They seemed keener to brush the issue under the carpet and off their 'to do' list than have to actually take the time and effort to have to do the work necessary to deal with the issue at hand. It needs to be seen to be felt and believed so I can only recommend you see it for yourself.
In all of the furore surrounding the rating of the film some commentators have said that whilst the film's director Lee Hirsch presses all the right buttons to get an emotive response from the viewer he doesn't identify the causes of bullying or offer any solution to the problem.
Other commentators have stated that the film shows how the bullies and those responsible for them including their schools should be brought to justice by being forced to be legally responsible and punished for their crimes and/or their failure to prevent crime. I disagree on both counts. Bully fully engages the viewer and makes them truly feel the pain of the protagonists and their families as well as the frustration that the senseless destruction of so many lives isn't prevented by those charged with the care of all involved.
In my opinion, the film acts as a catalyst for change, like a call to battle against what has become an endemic social disease. So where does it leave the rest of us? Well, firstly everyone should go and see the film and should take their children, nieces/nephews or other children to educate them about something that unfortunately is likely to be a part of their lives in one form or another unless (hopefully until is a better word) bullying is completely stamped out. Schools should be watching this film as part of their PSHE programmes.
It is only by looking this ugly issue in the eye, literally by watching the documentary that we can start to tackle the issue of how to deal with it. And whilst many readers may be lucky enough to not have had first-hand experience of bullying this does not mean that their lives (if not already) will not in some way ever be tainted by bullies.
Bullying isn't something that just happens if you are unfortunate as a child. Some child bullies grow up to be gang members who commit heinous crimes and blight the lives of communities they live in. There are also those who become adult bullies causing misery and destruction wherever they choose to be it in the workplace, or behind the anonymous shield of their social networking profiles. And keyboard warriors take many shapes and forms, you only need to take a look at some of the tweets posted by people on Twitter (including certain high profile and successful individuals) to see that bullying behaviour extends to beyond what we have traditionally known it as and pervades many areas of our lives. Upon reflection, I doubt anyone reading this will say that either they or someone close to them has not in fact been affected by bullies in one form or another. Whether we realise it or not the problems faced by the children and their families in Bully are as much our problem as theirs and we share the responsibility of dealing with it.
I passionately believe that in order to truly stamp out bullying we need as a society to deal with the root cause of bullying, not just be mopping up the devastating effects. Ultimately there is something that is triggered inside a child that turns them into a bully and leads to a life-long sentence, not only for their victims, but often for the bullies themselves. It isn't enough to simply be moved by the plight of victims of bullying such as the children featured in Bully or those we read about in tragic suicides in the press. Wanting to punish the bullies, whilst in the heat of the moment seems the correct karmic (and legal) answer yet it is simply not the solution. Punishment only deals with the effect. The only real solution to prevent bullying from continuing is to understand the cause and deal with it by educating ourselves, our children and those responsible for their welfare in educational facilities. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to do this.
I often say to people that being bullied served me well. It made me a fighter, determined to be a success and to 'win' what I perceived as the battle. It made me tough and unafraid of dealing with many difficult people and situations. However being a fighter also proved exhausting and at times made for a lonely existence. With age and experience, I am slowly becoming less a fighter for myself and more of a fighter for the good fight, whatever the fight may be and wherever I happen to find it. And in this regard I am excited to have recently become a member of the board of the Farley Project set up by my friend Elissa Kravetz, also a victim of bullying. We are due to make our first school visit in Inglewood, California this week and are currently applying for a grant to help us in our efforts and to this end would be grateful for your votes.
I hope that through my work with the Farley Project in my own small way I will be contributing to beating the cause of bullying and I hope that everyone reading this blog or who goes to watch Bully knows that they too can help in their own unique way. Together we are stronger and can eradicate bullying and the corresponding toxic impact on our society.
Ambi Sitham is a lawyer and life coach and the author of The Laws of Love.