Bully (2011 Documentary)

MOVIE RATING:  3.5 stars (B)

Bully (2012) is a raw and visceral documentary about kids being bullied, told from the point of view of the kids (and their parents) who are being bullied. Directed, and shot for the most part, by Lee Hirsch, Bully is unafraid to delve into what it feels like to be bullied. And Hirsch definitely gets that part right. Kids can be downright cruel to one another. Especially to those that don’t fit into what the bully or the group labels and defines as “Normal”…whatever that means. They judge their peers on physical looks, religion, sexuality, behavior, intelligence, etc. And they bully them through violence, words, and emotions.

Hirsch found an effective way to tell his story of the victims of bullying by shooting the documentary on a Canon 5D Mark II, a small still photography camera (DSLR) that shoots great HD video. This “low-key” production strategy gave him the ability to almost disappear while he was embedded with these kids in the schools, on the bus, and around their towns. Hirsch shot most of the film by himself so as not to call attention to a “crew” and the fact that he was making a movie. It’s surprising at times that the kids act out their bullying on camera, but from listening to Hirsch talk about the making of the film in an Apple “Meet The Filmmaker” podcast, it sounds like the bullies forgot that he was there at times, and naturally fell into their bullying habits and routines.

The stories of 6 kids (3 boys and 3 girls) are woven together over the course of the movie, moving through time and experiences as the movie marches forward. Hirsch does a great job of tying each story together with the others, showing their interconnectedness, but also giving each kid their own voice. I was definitely invested in the film emotionally from the first few minutes. The raw emotions of the people on camera are palpable and unless you’ve never been bullied at all, you can’t help but relate to the stories to some extent from first hand experience.

From a filmmaking standpoint, Bully is a well edited and put together movie. Hirsch clearly understands how to take various ideas/stories/segments and combine them to create a compelling narrative. The cinematography at times showed both brilliance and the roots of its low-budget, handheld, shot by the Director approach. Some of the handheld photography with its jittery and bumpy views, in-and-out of focus moments, and low quality, did call attention to itself, taking me out of the story. I appreciate that Hirsch probably got thrown into capturing video at times by himself and couldn’t focus on the quality of the shot and had to focus just on getting the shot so as not to interrupt the moment. But the handheld technique did feel a bit amateur and sloppy at times. It built-up in annoyance in me over the course of the film. But Hirsch was also able to capture some incredible moments and beautiful shots that might not have been caught if they had been thought about. Cinematography is always a double-edged sword in documentaries.

As a film about bullying, I wanted to experience the stories of some of the bullies as well. How did they learn their bullying behavior? What is causing them to treat other kids the way they do? While I can understand and appreciate that Hirsch wanted to just focus on the victims, I can’t help but want to delve into the other side of this issue more. And maybe another film will explore those aspects of this issue. If there is one thing I know, from first hand experience, it’s that bullying is a complex thing. Often times, those being bullies have been victims of bullying themselves. It’s a harsh Darwinesque “Survival of the fittest” world that we live in. And Bully definitely made me question my own behavior and experiences, both as a kid and as an adult.



Public Speaking

HBO has some of the best documentary films showcased on its channel. What grabbed me about this particular documentary are the title graphics. I just love them! I’m not a follower or fan of Fran Lebowitz, the author and speaker whom this film is about. I don’t think I had even heard of her before I saw the ads for this documentary on HBO. But the title graphics caught my eye and got me interested. Unfortunately, after watching about half of this documentary, I can’t say the film is very interesting. But the graphics are inspirational to me!

My Architect

FILM RATING: 4 stars

After writing about Masterclass, I just had to create a post dedicated to the great film My Architect (2003).  I watched this movie on DVD probably 5 years ago.  Obviously I am very biased towards movies about architecture being an architect.  But I would still argue that anyone can love this movie, even though it’s officially a “documentary”, because it’s really a very emotional tale about the love a son has for his father.  Director Nathaniel Kahn, son of famous architect Louis Kahn whom this movie is a biography about, crafted an unbelievably vibrant, poetic and poignant film about his deceased father and his work.  Nathaniel’s intention was to gain an understanding and appreciation of his father.  He didn’t really know his father when he was alive.  He was just 11 years old when he died, and because Nathaniel was an “illegitimate” son, Louis didn’t live with him and his mother, preferring to stay with his wife.

Louis Kahn was an architect like Terrence Malick is a Film Director: a perfectionist whose work can be counted on your hands.  Louis Kahn is not known for producing hundreds or thousands of buildings like his contemporaries Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Philip Johnson.  Instead, he crafted just a couple handfuls of masterpiece buildings over his lengthy career.  And none of his work is missed in this wonderful journey through his life and architecture.  Having studied Kahn’s work in architecture school, you would have thought that I would have already fully appreciated Louis Kahn as a master architect.  But to be honest, while I liked Kahn’s work prior to seeing this film, it’s solely because of this film that I now regard Louis Kahn as one of my favorite architects of all time, if not #1.  I had never seen any of Kahn’s buildings in person, but the filming of them in this movie along with the emotional storytelling from his son simply gave me the appreciation for Kahn and his work like nothing had before.  And upon seeing Kahn’s Salk Institute Buildings in La Jolla, California in person last year, I was blown away at the beauty, serenity and minimalism of his design.  The attention to detail, craftsmanship, and shear thought that went into his buildings is amazing.  I have yet to put my video and photographs from the visit into my own film, but it will come together eventually.

Below are just a few of my photos of Kahn’s Salk Institute…enjoy their incredible beauty!

The National Parks – Ken Burns

Most people who know me know that I LOVE the National Parks.  It has been an obsession of mine to see every single unit of the national park service…all 391!  I’ve been to 128 so far…and counting.  I fell in love with the national parks on September 3, 1994 when my friend Gannon Macneil and I took a Labor Day Weekend roadtrip to Northern Arizona.  I’ll never forget that incredible awestruck feeling of seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time.  It simply wowed me that something like it existed.  Having grown up in the flattened glacial country of the northern midwest, mountains and valleys and great landscapes were simply not a part of my vocabulary.  And my parents just didn’t take me to the national parks when I was a kid…they were all more than a day’s drive away and that was about the limit to my travels until high school and college.

The National Parks: America’s Best Idea is director Ken Burn’s opus to our country’s most beloved natural and scenic places.  And the 6-part miniseries (12 hours) definately shows some spectacular film and photo footage of our nation.  The series initially aired on PBS at the end of September.  I just finished watching the last episode tonight after recording all six parts in High Def on my DVR two months ago.  Burns is definately an incredible documentary filmmaker, having first become aware of him 13 years ago when I watched his PBS miniseries film The West (1996)…and then Lewis & Clark (1997) and Frank Lloyd Wright (1998).   I love the way Burns ties together historic photos & writings with current film and interviews.  My only complaint is that I think Burns films like the soundtrack that they deserve.  While often visually stunning and emotional poignant in narrative, the power of a great poetic score eludes Burns and his films.  It’s the one thing that I feel I will bring to my film work.

The Grand Tetons of Wyoming…one of my favorite places in the world: