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Lessons Learned From Being a Bully (Filmmaker)

Lessons Learned From Being a Bully (Filmmaker)

A Conversation With Lee Hirsch

As a service to the young filmmakers who submit films to the YoungCuts Film Festival, we will be featuring weekly filmmaking tips from YoungCuts Alumni, Partners and Friends.

Lee Hirsch, Director of Bully

Director Lee Hirsch came to Montreal February 25th to present his film Bully in partnership with local anti-bullying charity, La Fondation Jasmin Roy.

Thanks to Seville Films, YoungCuts had the opportunity to sit down with Lee and talk to him about the craft of documentary filmmaking. While Lee protested, "I'm not a big fan of Best Practices. Every film project is its own experience," he did also give a lot of great advice for young filmmakers looking to make a documentary. 

#1. Just Shoot This

"I was handed this piece of technology, the Canon 5D Mark II and I realized, I can just shoot this. All that work with a DP just went out of the window. This camera is a beautiful, magic thing. Shooting with it is very natural. It has a great look, a great depth of field."

#2. Be Invisible

Hirsch had access to film throughout the Sioux City Community School District including on buses, in cafeterias, classes, even inside the offices of school principals!

"After a week, people forgot I was there."

Being a one man crew with a small camera helped that process.

#3. Know Your Influences

Great writers also read. Great filmmakers also watch film.

"I'm pretty drawn to cinema vérité. I watch a lot of documentaries."

#4. Audio is Important

"Sound was an ongoing cluster. I tried lots of things. At one point, I built my own sound rig. I had gear all over me. I looked like the Unabomber. I ended up favouring using a single wireless LAV mike. We compensated for all of that, by going back to Skywalker Sound who mixed my previous film Amandla.

#5. Have Passion For Your Project

"You can reach out for a passion project and find help like Skywalker Sound. There are people, businesses, foundations, groups that will help you."

Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony

#6. Great Ideas Reveal Themselves

"I have a list of what I should do next as a project. A film about bullying was always on that list, but never on the top. We started doing some research on bullying and it was like when you buy a green car and suddenly you see green cars everywhere. Once we started researching, we saw bullying everywhere. Very quickly, we went from can we do this film to we have to do this film.

#7. Have Rules

As filmmakers like Lars Von Trier have demonstrated with his Dogme 95 Manifesto, setting rules for your film can paradoxically be liberating. 

"The first film that I directed took 10 years to make, so with Bully I wanted a clear frame. We were going to shoot for one full school year and we had better find our story in that time."

#8. Have Faith

"There were weeks where nothing happened. You just have to have faith. Eventually, you will have your story moments."

#9. Know When to Break Your Own Rules

"We did cheat a little. We went back after the school year was over to wrap up some of the stories that we followed during the school year.

#10. Cinema Vérité Doesn't Mean Be an Idiot

When one of the kids that Hirsch was following around (Alex) was being punched, strangled and stabbed on his school bus, Hirsch stopped being a fly on the wall and showed the footage to Alex's parents and to Alex's school.

Alex on Bus

#11. They Are Called Motion Picture Because Things Move

"The mistake a lot of people make is they have a movie without a value change. Characters have to move from state A to state B. Real stuff has to change."

#12. Be Prepared to Struggle

"A lot of people give up really quickly. They're not willing to put in the work. Be prepared to struggle. Don't think that it will come easy."

#13. Be Ready to Hurt

"Filming and then screening Bully has meant taking on a lot of pain. Seeing and hearing stories that break your heart. Cumulatively, that's been the hardest part."

#14. Great Films Consume You

"At a certain point, Bully forced me to choose between being an activist and an artist. You don't get to have it both ways. This one's tough. Overwhelming in that way.

But Amandla, my other film, was consuming as well - on the artistic and research side."

#15. Finishing the Film is Just the Beginning

Bully the film supports the Bully Project web-site. The film has been shown to more than half a million kids, with a goal of showing it to more than a million by the end of 2013.

"Anderson Cooper recently did a documentary about the film and its influence called The Bully Effect. We're showing the films to teachers and school administrators as part of their professional development. We want the film to be a tool to start communication or to improve communication on the subject.

Alex With Models

Lee Hirsch is a Documentary filmmaker from New York. His credits include Bully and Amandla!: a Revolution in Four Part Harmony. Follow Lee on Twitter: @LeeHirsch

Lee Hirsch & Bully Posters

Agree with Lee? Disagree? Have your own filmmaker tips, best practices or mistakes to avoid that you would like to share? Get in touch! E-Mail the YoungCuts Film Festival Director: