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Wake-up call

Emotional and difficult to watch,  ‘Bully’ inspires Pothole Pictures and Mohawk to host screening, discussion

  • Submitted image<br/>While it documents the effects of bullying on several youths, the film focuses in particular on 12-year-old Alex Libby of Sioux City as he is bullied throughout his seventh-grade year. <br/>

    Submitted image
    While it documents the effects of bullying on several youths, the film focuses in particular on 12-year-old Alex Libby of Sioux City as he is bullied throughout his seventh-grade year.

  • Submitted image<br/>The documentary “Bully” will be screened at Memorial Hall in Shelburne Falls Friday and Saturday, at 7:30 p.m. On Saturday night, Mohawk Trail Regional School students will perform at 7 p.m. and a community discussion will follow the movie.

    Submitted image
    The documentary “Bully” will be screened at Memorial Hall in Shelburne Falls Friday and Saturday, at 7:30 p.m. On Saturday night, Mohawk Trail Regional School students will perform at 7 p.m. and a community discussion will follow the movie.

  • Image courtesy of Cynthia Lowen<br/>The producer of “Bully,” Cynthia Lowen, will be on hand Saturday to answer questions and sign books.

    Image courtesy of Cynthia Lowen
    The producer of “Bully,” Cynthia Lowen, will be on hand Saturday to answer questions and sign books.

  • Submitted image<br/>While it documents the effects of bullying on several youths, the film focuses in particular on 12-year-old Alex Libby of Sioux City as he is bullied throughout his seventh-grade year. <br/>
  • Submitted image<br/>The documentary “Bully” will be screened at Memorial Hall in Shelburne Falls Friday and Saturday, at 7:30 p.m. On Saturday night, Mohawk Trail Regional School students will perform at 7 p.m. and a community discussion will follow the movie.
  • Image courtesy of Cynthia Lowen<br/>The producer of “Bully,” Cynthia Lowen, will be on hand Saturday to answer questions and sign books.

When about 50 Mohawk Trail Regional High School students returned from a “Bully” screening in Boston, organized last October by Gov. Deval Patrick, they were inspired to start an anti-bullying youth council and take on the problem locally.

Now, five months later, the school is teaming up with Shelburne Falls’ Pothole Pictures to host a special presentation of “Bully” — a 2011 documentary that tells the story of five families across the country affected by bullying.

On Saturday, the film will be followed by a community panel discussion, and “Bully” producer/writer Cynthia Lowen will be on hand to answer questions about the movie.

“Bully” may focus on characters from states outside New England — like Iowa, Oklahoma and Mississippi — but the film has local roots.

Lowen, 34, is an Amherst Regional High School graduate. Her cinematic partner on “Bully,” director Lee Hirsch, graduated from Hampshire College.

And the Pioneer Valley saw first hand the consequences of bullying when two children committed suicide after repeated taunting from their classmates, said Lowen, in a phone interview. Carl Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old Springfield boy, killed himself in April 2009. Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old Irish immigrant living in South Hadley, took her own life nine months later.

A districtwide survey at Mohawk schools in fall 2010 found that 30 percent of middle/high school students had been bullied and 60 percent of elementary school students did not tell anyone when a bullying incident occurred.

The survey results indicated to school officials that there was still work to be done, said Joey Kotright-Clark, assistant principal at Mohawk. An adult “Olweus” anti-bullying group was formed in fall 2011 and a youth task force was created one year later.

Bullying isn’t something that simply goes away, said Kotright-Clark. But he said there are areas where there can and needs to be improvement: reporting and response procedures for those who witness bullying and support systems for those who are bullied.

When Lowen filmed in schools and communities with Hirsch during the 2009-10 school year, she met educators and parents across the country who felt ill-equipped to deal with bullying.

Even in Sioux City, Iowa — a city school district with a progressive anti-bullying program, where school officials granted Lowen and Hirsch full access to schools all year long — the pair filmed administrators as they struggled to deal with bullying that occurred.

Lowen said she encountered apathy from people who thought that bullying was a “rite of passage” for adolescents.

“Our biggest feeling about this film is that you can’t move hearts and minds with statistics,” said Lowen. “You move hearts and minds through stories.”

“Bully” follows two separate families as they cope with the loss of their sons to bullying-related suicides. It tells how students and teachers harassed a 16-year-old Oklahoma girl, who recently came out as a lesbian. And it shows a 14-year-old girl from Mississippi who faces felony charges for trying to scare off tormentors with a loaded handgun.

But the central story follows 12-year-old Alex Libby of Sioux City as he is bullied throughout his seventh-grade year.

Not wanting to draw attention to their focus on Libby, Hirsch and Lowen purposely filmed random people and events throughout the year on a small Canon 5d Mark II. Within a few days, they blended in and were able to capture some of the bullying of Libby on camera.

Critics, who overwhelmingly found the film favorable and important for young audiences to see, said that the true depictions of violence were emotional and difficult to watch.

“The best social documents on film do more than show you what’s wrong in the world — they make it personal. ‘Bully’ does that with a passion,” wrote Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers.

And Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote that the documentary “is less a checklist plan for eliminating abusive behavior than an emotionally powerful wake-up call for a society too long in denial.”

Profanity caused the Motion Picture Association of America to initially give the film an “R” rating — a move that sparked outrage and led online petitions to call for a lower rating so that its target audience (teenagers) would be able to see the movie in theaters.

The “R” rating, a “restricted” rating that prohibits children under 17 from seeing a movie without parental supervision, shocked Lowen.

“It’s what they’re hearing as they go through the halls,” she said. “The language in the film doesn’t shock any of the kids because it’s something they see all the time.”

The Weinstein Co. proceeded to release the movie without a rating because the studio refused to cut a crucial bullying scene from the film.

But the film was edited again and a new version — which kept that scene and its three F-words intact, but eliminated profanity elsewhere — was given a PG-13 rating.

Fred DeVecca, coordinator of Pothole Pictures, first heard of “Bully” when news outlets focused on its release and the film ratings battle.

“It was a hard film to watch. It’s kind of unsparing in presenting the whole issue,” DeVecca said.

“But I walked away from it feeling that it was really hopeful,” he added. “It was really shining a light on this whole issue.”

When DeVecca heard last summer that Lowen grew up in Amherst, he jumped at the chance to invite her to Shelburne Falls for a public screening of “Bully.”

And then, at the start of fall, DeVecca was approached separately by Kotright-Clark, whose students wanted to organize both a screening of “Bully” and a community panel. It is the first time Pothole Pictures and the school district have teamed up on an event, said DeVecca.

Main events Saturday,
film also screening Friday

The film will be screened this Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $6 for adults and $4 for any students, said DeVecca. The theater is located in Memorial Hall, 51 Bridge St., and is fully heated and handicapped accessible.

On Friday night, musician Ken Swiatek will perform pre-film entertainment at 7 p.m. DeVecca selected the Williamstown artist in part because of his song “This Bullying.”

The main event will take place on Saturday, beginning at 7 p.m. when Mohawk students, led by music director Scott Halligan, will provide pre-film entertainment. Kotright-Clark didn’t reveal too many details, but said the piece will be thematic and similar to Stomp — the music theatrical group that uses bodies and ordinary objects as percussion instruments.

The 98-minute movie will be followed by a panel discussion about bullying — featuring local educators and singer-songwriter and activist Sarah Pirtle.

Lowen will also be on hand to answer questions and to sell and sign two books: “Bully: An Action Plan for Teachers, Parents, and Communities to Combat the Bullying Crisis” and “The Essential Guide to Bullying: Prevention And Intervention.”

“It’s really inspiring to see kids taking the lead in such a way,” said Lowen. “It sounds like it’s going to be a really great screening.”

Staff reporter Chris Shores started at The Recorder in 2012. He covers education and health and human services. He can be reached at
cshores@recorder.com or
413-772-0261, ext. 264. His website is www.chrisshores.com

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