The title Bully is a grammatical anomaly, because this documentary is not about a bully, but rather about bullying. A pedantic details perhaps, but remember the panda bear who eats, shoots and leaves and you’ll remember the importance of details in the English language. This anomaly is also relevant, as it serves to highlight the fact that the documentary is never about bullies.
Bully tells of the untimely death of Tyler Long – a 17-year-old American boy from Georgia – who, feeling trapped by a life of brutal assault from school bullies, chooses to take his own life as his only means of escape. The film crew follows the aftermath of this tragedy, as his parents come to terms with their grief. It is interspersed throughout with the stories of other children who have been victimised by bullying.
As one of the children interviewed points out: why is it only once such drastic acts occur that people stand up and take notice? It is only tragedy which seems to propel others into action and the documentary underscores this, as well as being a voice for those who feel silenced by their fear. Tyler’s suicide leads to an investigation of his school and what they are doing about the situation. What is revealed is a terrifying apathy amongst teachers and administrators and a constant attempt at brushing off the problem and shifting the blame.
At no point, however, does anyone try to understand why bullying happens in the first place and why the perpetrators are engaging in these acts. No one tries to talk to the bullies or their parents or to anyone else concerning this matter. There is no voice of authority or expertise either from local police or government or even psychologists. There is a definite vein of ignorance running through the film and it becomes a tool for dealing with grief, rather than trying to find a solution. The whole documentary is rather disjointed as it jumps across the American south, emphasising the point that this is bullying in one corner of the world and in one type of community and social milieu.
No attempt is made to show whether the situation has improved and what, if any, preventive measures are being put in place. It is extremely bleak, as it should be considering the subject matter; but through the story of Ja’Maya a thread of hope is interlaced and as a tool for dealing with grief it works.