'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 is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen