Activist trends come and go—time will tell if KONY 2012 can have any lasting impact—but anti-bullying seems to have stuck around. A whole slew of anti-bullying campaigns have exploded into the cultural eye in the last 15 years, including Dan Savage’s ultra-successful social media campaign, the It Gets Better Project. The power of social media campaigns like Savage’s can’t be denied, but it shouldn’t stop on the Internet. Until recently, anti-bullying seemed to be missing out on some vital mediums—namely documentary film.
Bully, following the daily struggle of five tormented high school students, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2011 to a rainstorm of attention. Since then, the documentary has been featured at Canada’s Hot Docs festival, the LA Film Festival, Italy’s Ischia Film Festival, and will be released to limited screens in the U.S. this Friday.
But Bully is currently facing a kind of bullying of its own. The playground thug? That feared buzz-killer called the MPAA. The Motion Picture Association of America has faced many the dispute over its controversial ratings system that many say is flawed, specifically for its emphasis on language over violence and sex. Therein lies Bully‘s recent struggle. The documentary has a scene—the scene of the crime, so to speak—in which a foul-mouthed kid hurls a few nasty four-letter words at another kid. This scene is the bane of the MPAA’s existence apparently. Director Lee Hirsch and Harvey Weinstein of the Weinstein Company, have refused to delete the scene, a move which would lower the rating from its disputed R and allow high school teens to see the important film. According to the mega movie mogul, the scene holds too much resonance to be removed.
Hirsch agrees, telling the Associated Press, “To cut around it or bleep it out, it really absolutely does lessen the impact and takes away from what the honest moment was. I feel a responsibility as a filmmaker, as the person entrusted to tell [these kids'] stories, to not water them down.”
This isn’t the first time Harvey Weinstein and the MPAA have butted heads over what is deemed inappropriate. In 2010, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, faced a battle over a rare and reviled NC-17 rating. Gosling called the MPAA out on a sexist double standard for slapping on the harsh rating because of a scene depicting Gosling’s character performing oral sex on Williams’. Were it in reverse, Gosling said, Blue Valentine would likely have received an easy R. Though the rating was soon successfully overturned, struggles like this one over MPAA ratings are distinctly different from the Bully fight.
Earlier this month, the AP reported Joan Graves, head of the Classification and Rating Administration at the MPAA, calling Bully a “wonderful film,” but that ultimately the organization’s primary responsibility is to parents. While a deft swoop of PR rhetoric, to believe that the MPAA really cares about parents would be naive. While I have yet to see Bully, one might assume from the trailer alone that Bully is the perfect kind of unscripted exposé and teaching moment parents want their children to see.
MPAA controversies of this kind are a bit of a double-edged dispute. The Weinstein Company has a major economic interest in seeing its films receive lower ratings—the lower the rating the wider the audience, no doubt. Had Blue Valentine‘s rating not dropped from its original NC-17, few theatres would have shown the Gosling-Williams drama, it would have created less awards buzz, and generally would have had a tough time cracking much of the entertainment market.
Bully is a bit different, if only for its cultural resonance. In the wake of media coverage on bullying and anti-bullying campaigns, the documentary could play an important role in increasing awareness and education of the issue. Whatever the motives of Harvey Weinstein, Bully is the kind of documentary that could pack a helluva cultural punch if given the chance.
What the controversy points to is a bigger problem in the political economy of the MPAA. No, the MPAA doesn’t care about the parents and their children. Where the MPAA is concerned is in the holdings of its “Big Six” hot-shot members: Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Universal Studies, Warner Brothers, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and, of course, FIMS favourite—Disney.
Independent film studios like the Weinstein Co. often get the short end of the stick next to the MPAA’s beloved Big Six. Voltage Pictures recently lost their battle to overturn the NC-17 rating of the Matthew McConaughey thriller Killer Joe, a struggle that might have been easier had Joe been a friend of the MPAA. As noted recently in the LA Times by David Dinerstein, a rep at Joe’s LD Distribution, the MPAA has let slide plenty of gore-tastic flicks before: Disney’s Miramax released Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction with an R rating in ’94; Warner Bros.’ New Line Cinema released A History of Violence with an R rating in ’05; and more recently, Sony’s Columbia Pictures released The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—rape scene and all—with a generous R stamp.
The absurdity of the MPAA system is even more concerning next to the Hollywood North. Bully has apparently received a much lower PG rating in Canada, and while the provincial rating systems are typically lower than the MPAA system, this difference is still pretty striking, though not uncommon. In 2007, the MPAA gave Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley’s quiet Alzheimer’s drama Away From Her an R rating. The film received a PG rating in its home country. In Canada, there are six separate provincial boards, unlinked to film studios and executives, but below the border, it would seem that the MPAA and its stakeholders claim a kind of ratings monopoly.
As Bully prepares for a limited release this Friday, its future remains unclear. Weinstein Co. could release the doc unrated, a risky move unlikely to satisfy theatre owners. But with any luck, he might not have to do that at all. The online petition started by Michigan high school student Katy Butler on Change.org has been backed by some major media personalities, and the signature count has climbed to close to half a million.
For Bully to finally bring the anti-bullying movement to the all-important film market, it seems online campaigning will have to play a big role.
UPDATE: Weinstein Co. announced Monday that they will release Bully unrated. How theatre owners will respond remains to be seen.
Watch the Bully trailer.