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A Force for Change: Lee Hirsch

By Susan Gerhard

We spoke with documentarian Lee Hirsch about his award-winning films Bully and Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony. 

The trailer for Lee Hirsch’s documentary Bully.  

Bravery is a frequent subject for documentary filmmaker Lee Hirsch, and it has been his modus operandi since he became an anti-apartheid activist at the age of 15. His first feature signaled an ambitious spirit: Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony (2002) documented the struggles of black South Africans who used music and dance to battle the injustices of their apartheid government. With his second film, Bully (2013), Hirsch bears witness to the middle school years that so many of us would love to forget—the film’s focus is the cruel peer harassment that, left unchecked, is causing some teens to take their own lives. Bully became a national cause célèbre and gave rise to a powerful grassroots anti-bullying movement. 

With bare-bones technical tools, straightforward storytelling, and an earnest educational outreach, Hirsch is staring down (and transforming) the real-life monsters in our midst.

CAPTURING BULLIES

Gerhard: Bully was such an impressive documentary feature, in large part because of the way it captured moments of crisis. It’s hard for me to imagine how a live camera could capture moments like a boy being smashed into school bus seats, for instance, or threats in school hallways. Did you “hide,” or were you in plain view? Did you have a big crew to get the sound and B-roll? 

Hirsch: I didn’t hide; I was in plain view. But it was also a very lean production approach. In most cases, it was really just me with a small prosumer camera. I shot a lot with a Canon 5D Mark II camera. They didn’t know if I was shooting video or had a still camera. Mainly the idea was to have a really small imprint. Kids, educators, a lot of people in the film—over time, and not very much time—kind of forgot that I was there and lost interest. 

Gerhard: The film, as a finished product, displays the results of what had to be a lot of trust between you, children, parents and administrators—even as the administrators were critiqued. What did you do to create that trust? 

Hirsch: For one, we developed a relationship with the community, the school board, the superintendent. The producers and I took three trips out there to present the idea. The superintendent championed this idea of being transparent. I think this is very “Midwest-y,” these great, strong values. 

The editor of the Sioux City Journal penned a full-page editorial about the crisis in bullying and why it matters in his community, and why it “stops here,” and put it on the cover of his paper. That went out through the Associated Press; it was seen all over the world. 

Gerhard: You were able to build a campaign around the film. Did the film begin with the “issue” or with characters? 

Hirsch: It began with the issue. I probably spent about ten years gestating on the idea that a film about bullying could be a project that would be right for me. I was bullied as a kid, so I felt like I understood the world and had something to say, and was still angry about it. I wanted to go out and be a voice for people going through this. I learned about the number of youth impacted, the seriousness of the aggression.

With the movement, The Bully Project, it’s become more about activist strategy. I’m much more focused on how to leverage change, how to change hearts and minds. How do you work with all constituencies, whether it’s Mike Huckabee or the most progressive commentator or celebrity or activist? How do you develop the right resources and materials so you can actually take someone who is moved and inspired to be a change agent, and give them enough support, at scale, that they can be a powerful change agent at a particular school or community? That’s a lot of what my work focuses on today.

Gerhard: The campaign is part of the art.

Hirsch: Which is a very, very new concept. You have artists, you have filmmakers who are being as thoughtful about their outreach, engagement, and impact as they are about the art itself.

(Learn more about the Bully Project Mural, a partnership between Adobe and The Bully Project.)

REVOLUTIONARY FILMMAKING

Gerhard: Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony won both the Freedom of Expression award and the Audience award at Sundance, which points to the fact that it’s not only moving and politically inspiring but also entertaining. How did the film’s thesis—that it was music that held the revolution together and pushed it forward—come to you? 

Hirsch: In high school, I went to a boarding school called the Putney School, and we came together and had a raucous choir event every so often, singing everything from Bach to folk songs to old dirges. And we sang South African freedom songs. It was an amazing experience. In that window, when I was about 15, I was highly active in the American anti-apartheid movement. When I viewed protest footage from South Africa, I saw it differently. Some people would say, “Wow, that’s a lot of people.” I would look at it, and I would listen to it, and say, “Wow, what are they singing?! Why are 10,000 people up against tanks and they’re dancing and singing?! What are they singing?”

Gerhard: I was impressed by the way you used group interviews, with two or more of your film’s subjects talking about the shared past, together. So much of the film is about building group unity, identity. As a storytelling strategy, this worked well. Can you talk about that and about assembling the film’s cast of amazing characters?

Hirsch: That is a great example of how the matured friendships manifested on screen. A lot of the group interviews were with my friends, and some of them were in my house. They were based on many nights spent drinking lots of beer and having these conversations—and being like, “OK, can we just do that again three weeks from now when I’m shooting?”

It was interesting to step outside of that model when we did the riot police interview. It was the same general theory; they were peppered with questions and alcohol and meat. They drank a lot that afternoon and we just rolled the cameras and eventually we got this great stuff. South Africans love to get together and debate.

Gerhard: What were your biggest technical challenges in creating this? I imagine there was an awful lot of footage to sort through, and I also imagine—with the importance of live, impromptu singing here—that the sound quality was a key piece.

Hirsch: I didn’t have a lot of money, but one of the things I did spend the money that I did have on was to bring a sound recordist over to South Africa to shoot the film with me. Not because there aren’t good sound recordists in South Africa, but because the genre of documentary wasn’t very respected at the time over there. “It’s just a little dockie.” There are all the subtle cues; I wanted someone who was going to come and bring too much gear—fifteen different types of microphones—and who was passionate. This great guy named Stuart Deutsch, who’s a wonderful sound recordist, brought a lot of life to the film. 

When it came to finish it, I said I absolutely want a genius doing the sound design and the sound mix. I didn’t know what to do about getting that. I was young, new to the industry, but I was aware of Skywalker Sound. I wrote to this wonderful artist named Gary Rydstrom out of the blue, and I said I’d been working on this movie for ten years. “If we can’t get across the power and the impact of these voices and what it means to be surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people singing these songs in four-part harmony, my entire film won’t stand. Would you take a look at it, and would you ever consider working on something like this?” He had just come off working on Star Wars or something like that, and sure enough, he said, “We love the cut. Let’s talk about it.” They put a team together and finished our sound, and it’s world-class. They stepped up again for Bully, and I’m very indebted and grateful to them for my creative life. They took really awful sound and made it great. I broke every rule in the book on sound recording on set for Bully, and they fixed all of it.

A FOCUS ON MEANINGFUL CONTENT

Gerhard: You now work in so many different areas; I’ve read that you’re beginning to do commercial work. You’ve done political [campaign] work—short testimonials from individual Americans. Do you have a preference for short form or long form? 

Hirsch: I’m much more open now to what the format is, what the distribution or plan is. There are so many ways to create great content. We did stuff for Upworthy, a short—great content that got millions of views. For me, I tend to be a populist; I want my stuff to be seen. I’d rather do work that fits the right kind of formula and get it out there than do something more avant-garde for the sake of art. I think there’s a lot of new opportunity for different types of content and different lengths and different structures around how it gets disseminated. But I’ll never not love the feature. The documentary feature is the pinnacle.

Gerhard: Do you have a favorite piece of equipment?

Hirsch: When I did Bully, the fact that the digital single-lens reflex [DSLR] camera revolution had just happened was big piece of the puzzle for me. I realized I could do this myself; I didn’t have to wait until I could hire a DP. It was that breakthrough moment. I think that there’s going be more and more of those radical shifts in technology as we move forward, and that’s great. It puts more tools in people’s hands.