A war over words is what is keeping the award-winning documentary Bully from reaching the widest audience possible. After earning an R-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, The Weinstein Company began waging a very public battle with the MPAA to change the rating to PG-13. With an online petition also amassing widespread support, the battle for Bully has brought even more attention to a true national crisis.
If statistics posted by the controversial documentary Bully are accurate, over 13 million American children will be subjected to acts of bullying this year. It is the most common act of violence kids will experience. For director Lee Hirsch, it was a topic that demanded exploration and solution.
"Bully is a deeply personal film for me," Hirsch recounted in the production material for the film supplied by The Weinstein Company. "I was bullied throughout middle school and much of my childhood. In many ways, those experiences and struggles helped shape my worldview and my direction as a filmmaker. Bullying was a subject I wanted very much to explore in a film, and it was always on the list of projects I wanted to develop. But it stayed an abstraction for a long time -- I was too scared to start developing the idea in earnest because it would mean confronting my own demons, and revisiting a painful period of my life."
Despite the praised earned by Bully by local communities involved with the project and on the film festival circuit, the frank nature of the documentary prompted the MPAA to bestow upon it a restricted rating, with the film denied a PG-13 classication by one vote. If upheld, the R-rating, which does not allow children under 17 admittance without a parent or guardian, would systematically keep out much of the age group depicted in the film.
The Weinstein Company, which is still planning to release the film in select theaters on March 30, stirred plenty of ire through the media, threatening the MPAA it would pull all of its films from MPAA classication. Credit 17 year-old Katy Butler of Ann Arbor, who posted an online petition on Change.org, bringing further momentum to TWC's cause.
"From what I understand," Butler wrote on her petition's homepage on Change.org, "the MPAA ruled by ONE vote that Bully deserves an R-rating because of 'language,' robbing many teenagers of the chance to view a film that could change their lives, and help reduce violence in schools. This makes me really mad. It means that a film documenting the abuse that millions of kids experience through bullying won’t be seen by the audience that needs to see it the most: middle school students and high school students."
As of this posting, Butler is just under 3,000 signatures of her goal of 150,000. Among the notable supporters, Reverend Jesse Jackson, who offered his own statement to the cause in a press release issued by TWC.
"Bully is a movie that depicts the nightmare that some kids face every day in schools across America," Rev. Jackson said. "This harsh reality must not be edited especially considering how bullying has become a horrible form of violence. It drives individuals to suicide and even retaliation. Children are afraid to go to school and therefore their educational productivity decreases. It creates violent reactions in our children and they must be allowed to see the movie as it was intended to help raise awareness, increase empathy and change minds.”
Motivated by the tragic suicides in of two 11 year-old boys in Massachusetts and Georgia in 2009, Hirsch started the process of researching and fundraising to create Bully. To achieve his goal, Hirsch and his team embedded themselves into the East Middle School in Sioux City, Iowa for a school year. The result is an intimate portrait that entered the homes, classrooms, cafeterias and school officials' offices, capturing actual bullying and the subsequently painful struggle for causes and soltutions.
"We look at this film as a very rare opportunity to capture the public’s attention on this issue that affects every community," Hirsch added. "And while we have their attention, we intend to provide information and resources to help, both in the short term and the long term. We made Bully with the conviction that audiences, especially young people, can be moved off the sidelines and empowered to stand up for those around them."
Bully opens in Los Angeles on March 30.
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