Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer and Director: Thomas Keith

Having played the festival circuit in 2019 and 2020, Thomas Keith’s 70-minute documentary Bullied comes to digital download this week. Structured in a traditional essay format and using a series of case studies, as the title suggests, aspects of this film are very difficult to watch but by covering the origins and experience of the persecuted as well as ways to reduce bullying behaviours in schools Keith offers a valuable analytical approach.

There is a considerable amount of material in this documentary that foregrounds the experience of the bullied, largely in schools where violent attacks are caught on CCTV and participants’ own phones. An early montage shows children in locker rooms, corridors and outside their homes violently and repeatedly punching, pushing and dragging others around by their hair. And then Keith reveals that children as young as 8 are committing suicide as a result of bullying.

The rest of the film is structured around some key sociological questions about the risk factors that single particular people out, the benefit to the bully and ultimately what preventative strategies have been tried in schools across America. A second strand offers a series of related case studies ending in a child’s suicide that are sensitively handled, providing an outline of the circumstances without detailing how their death occurred.

Many of these make for painful viewing with children and young adults recording cries for help on film before, a while later, taking their own lives. And Keith is particularly inclusive in the selection of stories, touching on separate instances of racist, homophobic and media-inspired bullying, supporting his argument with home videos, photographs, news reports and interviews excerpts with friends and family members that emphasise the wider cost.

One of the most interesting but under-developed angles focuses on the development of a societal culture that validates bullying behaviours, something one of the academic contributors refers to as the “Mean Girls phenomenon” in which a system of bullying emerges based on hierarchies and maintaining dominance. This is driven, Keith suggests, by the proliferation of intimidation behaviours in reality TV where physical fights and hostility is the apex of the drama.

Much more of the documentary could have been dedicated to understanding the effect of the longer-term validation of extreme behaviours in recent years, driven by the bombast of political leaders like Trump (who naturally makes an appearance here) as well as the relentless hostility of social media and the possible glamorisation of suicide in TV dramas. While the supporting case studies draw attention to the horrifying experience of bullying and makes this a victim-focused documentary, how behaviours are cultivated, normalised and even encouraged by public discourse needs more than a 10-minute overview.

As a teacher of philosophy and gender studies at an American university, Keith has a clear structural approach to Bullied and ends with some hope for the future, evidencing schools with “socio-emotional learning environments” that teach children how to interact appropriately with one another now and in the future. The film’s focus on why particular children are singled out by their tormentors is valuable, but why children bully and why so many others stand on the sidelines and let it happen is still to be fully explored.

Release Date: 12 February 2021

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