Bully

The Weinstein Brothers are champions at using controversy to garner publicity for their films. Recently they used that skill to the hilt to stir up public interest in their documentary “Bully,” an intimate look at the problem of bullying in public schools. First they inserted enough explicit language to earn an R rating. Then they complained vociferously to the rating board that the R would prevent the most important audience from seeing the film. The controversy was reported in the media, and reviewers like me sat up and took notice. I viewed “Bully” the day it opened, fully expecting it to knock “Hunger Games” off its throne as the most talked-about film of the season.

Katniss Everdeen need not worry; she still owns the throne. “Bully” is a good documentary. It might even be an important documentary. Those who have experienced any form of bullying will probably find it a very moving documentary. But I don’t think anyone is going to be flocking to see it, regardless of the rating. It will probably end up in many school libraries, however, and many students will see it in their social studies classes for years to come.

The film follows the stories of five students from four states (Georgia, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Mississippi) who have experienced bullying for a variety of reasons. One is small for his age. Another suffers the physical effects of a premature birth. Yet another is a lesbian. Two have committed suicide, and are represented by interviews with their parents and in clips from home movies. The filmmakers were able to get surprisingly candid scenes of students abusing these kids on the bus, in the cafeteria, and in the hallways, as well as candid scenes of administrators, teachers, and parents — people who often make fools of themselves as they discuss the problem. I often thought to myself, “Didn’t they realize they were being filmed?” I applaud the filmmakers’ ability to elicit such open, unabashed realism. No one in this film was on his best behavior.

Except, perhaps, for the school administrators. They fairly glow in their obvious attempt to put their best feet forward and shine for the cameras. The principal at Alex’s school stands in the hallway as the students arrive from the bus. One boy comes to her with his hand on his head and reports, “A kid slammed my head into a nail!” The principal puts on her sweetest, most understanding voice and says, “I’ll bet you didn’t like that, did you?” Another boy walks past, visibly upset, and she says to the camera, “He’s such an unhappy child.” In another scene she forces two older boys to shake hands as a way to resolve what seems to be a longstanding battle. The bully extends his hand, but when the victim of his bullying is reluctant to do so, she chastises him, saying that he is now the bully and that it’s his fault. “Why don’t you just get along?” she coos after the bully leaves. “He was willing to shake your hand. I think the two of you could be friends.” The boy, nervous and confused, responds, “The cops told us to stay apart.” This principal hasn’t a clue. Not a clue.

Another school administrator tries to whitewash the issue. “Is it an ongoing problem in our school?” she asks rhetorically. “No it is not,” she answers herself, vigorously nodding her head as she says it. I would love to have an expert explain that body language! Another administrator offers a similarly Pollyannish response when parents complain about the abuse their son is experiencing on the bus. First she says, “Buses are notorious for abuse,” and offers, “I can put him on another bus” — rather than trying to solve the problem. The mother suggests (wisely, I might add), “When I was a kid the bus driver pulled over and wouldn’t take anyone home until everyone settled down.” Isn’t that kind of an obvious policy? But the principal simply says, “I’ve ridden Bus 54, and they were good as gold.” Several of us in the audience laughed out loud at that idiotic response. Well, duh! You were on the bus! Of course they behaved!

The film does a fine job of revealing the problems experienced in the communities it covers, but it offers few satisfying solutions. Devon, who was bullied for four years, says in an interview, “I stood up for myself, and they leave me alone now.” But when Ja’Maya tries this technique, she ends up in juvenile jail for several months. Alex simply gives into the abuse, acknowledging sadly, “At least it’s attention. I don’t mind it that much.” His story is perhaps the saddest, because he feels so lonely in addition to being bullied. He just wants a friend. Telling school authorities and the police also accomplishes little. When a vice principal asks one of the bullied boys why he didn’t speak up sooner, he responds, “Because you didn’t do anything about it last year when I told you that X sat on my head.”

Only one family makes what I consider the right choice: they take their daughter out of school and teach her at home. Why would any thinking, caring parent subject a child to this kind of torture day after day? When are parents going to wake up and realize that the public school system itself is broken beyond repair?

While “Bully” is a good movie, it is hardly a great one. My biggest complaint is that its scope is so limited. These children all lived in similar small towns in the South or Midwest, and all seemed to come from similar poor socioeconomic backgrounds. That is hardly a representative sampling. An estimated 13 million children experience bullying every year, representing every region of the country, every size of community, and every socioeconomic group. Moreover, children used to find a safe haven after school hours. But bullying has left the schoolground and now occurs increasingly at home, especially through the internet. Children simply can’t get away from the painful words and public gossip. None of this is highlighted in the film. Nevertheless, I consider “Bully” must-see viewing for anyone who has a child attending a public school.

What made me saddest as I watched this film was not the funeral of little Ty, one of the boys who committed suicide, or even watching a boy ram Alex’s head against the back of a bus seat. It wasn’t hearing Alex’s principal say, “Boys will be boys.” It was the sight of Alex’s own mother browbeating and chastising him for not telling her that he was being bullied at school, followed by his sister joking that she’s embarrassed at school because none of her friends like him. He’s surrounded by bullies at school, and by well-intentioned bullies at home. I just wanted to wrap my arms around that little boy and whisk him away from all of them. All of them.

“Bully,” directed by Lee Hirsch. Weinstein Bros., 2011, 99 minutes.

If It Can’t Be Counted, Does It Count?

The aftermath of Hilary Rosen’s statement that Ann Romney “hasn’t worked a day in her life” has focused mainly on whether or not “mothering” is considered “work.” The Obama administration has fallen all over itself in an attempt to gain distance from Rosen’s statement, and Rosen herself has issued an apology. In fact, it would be hard to find anyone who would seriously assert that raising children and keeping house doesn’t require effort.

But the commentators are missing the real issue here. It isn’t how Ann Romney spent her time that bothers Rosen and others like her — it is the fact that Romney wasn’t paid by an outside source for her services. If she had operated a daycare center from her home, taking care of someone else’s five children for pay, or if she had gone into other people’s homes to clean and organize and drive carpool, no one would have suggested that she “hasn’t worked a day in her life.” It isn’t the nature of the work that angers them. The true, underlying objection to stay-at-home moms is that there is no way to measure the worth of their labor. We are a society that likes to keep score, and the way we keep score of an adult’s value is through dollars.

The truth is, most stay-at-home moms don’t stay at home. They are extremely active and productive. I was hoping Ann Romney would talk about some of the work she has done outside her home as well as how hard she worked inside her home raising her boys. She has worked as a teacher and as an administrator in many charitable organizations, particularly within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormons are a lay church, meaning there is no paid ministry. As president of a congregation’s Relief Society, for example, a Mormon woman is responsible for ministering to the spiritual, social, and welfare needs of hundreds of families. She oversees weekly classes, coordinates compassionate service projects, counsels with women who are struggling with various problems, and delegates duties to an army of women who watch over the flock, all through voluntary service. In many ways, her job is similar to that of the director of a Red Cross or Salvation Army unit in a neighborhood that experiences the equivalent of a home fire every week. But because she is not paid for her services, there seems to be no acceptable way to measure the value of her work. And without a unit of measurement, the “score” is assumed to be zero.

For many years Ann Romney served as the teacher of a rigorous daily scripture-study course for high school students. The program is administered by the worldwide Church Educational System, which requires teachers to attend monthly faculty meetings and in-service training sessions. It also requires intensive daily study and preparation on the part of the teacher. True, a “real teacher” (i.e., “salaried” teacher) would spend the entire day leading perhaps five sections of the same course, instead of just one hour-long session. But the preparation required to teach a class is the same for one section or multiple sections. Ann Romney worked just as hard at just as respectable a job as any employed teacher. But she received no credit in the eyes of the world because she wasn’t financially remunerated. There was no way to keep score.

Romney is also an athlete. Despite being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she competes as an adult amateur in equestrian dressage at the national level. I suppose if she were a paid athlete, we would consider this a “job.” Certainly she puts in as much practice and effort to reach the national level as a professional athlete might. But since she is an unsalaried amateur, this is considered just one more example of Ann’s little hobbies as a wealthy stay-at-home mom. She has dedication and success, but it isn’t really “work,” is it?

This obsession with scorekeeping has invaded our school system as well, where it threatens to stultify the naturally creative minds of the young. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program has turned many of America’s children into mush-headed test-takers. “Teach to the test,” once the hallmark of the worst kind of teaching, has become the new mantra of public school education. With jobs and funding at stake, school administrators chastise teachers who introduce art, music, or even spelling (which isn’t on the standardized tests) to their students. “Get those scores up!” administrators fairly bellow, and that means focusing only on the tasks that are tested. It’s all about keeping score and bringing in the money.

In an advanced economic system, where money and exchange form the basis of measuring work, it is very easy for the capitalist to start viewing the world narrowly in terms of “making money” instead of “making useful goods and services.” But value is determined by much more than money. Interestingly, the people who characterize stay-at-home moms as “not working” because they don’t get paid are often the same ones who try to eliminate scorekeeping in Little League and other youth sports. “Children should play for the love of the game!” they proclaim.

I think they have this backwards. Games require scorekeeping. Goods and services require a medium of exchange. But caring for family, friends, and community can be done for the rich reward of — merely a hug. Women who rear families and care for their homes do not need a paycheck for validation. Let’s put scorekeeping back on the soccer field, and take it out of our homes.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

At the beginning of the First World War, Robert Frost wrote in Mending Wall (1914), “Good fences make good neighbors” — suggesting metaphorically that borders and boundaries help to prevent war and aggression. But in that same poem he acknowledged,

Something there is that doesn’t like a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Nature herself, he said, works to break down manmade walls through the simple power of water finding cracks and breaking rocks. Nature doesn’t like boundaries.

Borders are good when borders are necessary. They are preferable to war. But more than a century earlier, weary from the destruction and expense of war, Benjamin Franklin recommended wise foreign policy when he wrote: “The system of America is commerce with all and war with none.”

Business brings people together. I may not like your politics, your religion, your clothing, or your neighborhood, but if you produce something I want and I produce something you want, and if we have a justice system that protects our right to property, we will manage to get along, if only for the benefit of mutual exchange. War and aggression may provide short-term solutions to shortages, and walls may keep aggressors at bay. But commerce and free trade promote lasting relationships that increase prosperity and living standards for all. Understanding this simple fact could solve many of the current problems in the Middle East.

Commerce vs war. That’s what I thought my review would emphasize when I headed out to see “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” an indie flick about a British fisheries expert (Ewan McGregor) who is hired to create a salmon fishery in Yemen. What a great a new industry for an emerging nation, I thought. This is the way to be good neighbors and promote peace and prosperity — through commerce! Who needs war?

Sigh. This is what happens when I start writing my review before seeing the movie. “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” is not about commercial fishing at all, but about a wealthy sheik (Amr Waked) who loves salmon fishing at his massive estate in Scotland and is willing to spend £50 million or more to be able to fish in Yemen. He isn’t interested in creating jobs and industry; he just wants to fish in his own backyard. Sheesh!

Nevertheless, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” is a wonderful little film, one that is well worth seeing. Salmon fishing is actually a metaphor for the uphill relationships presented in this funny romantic drama, which follows two couples who become unintentionally entwined. The fisheries expert, Dr. Alfred Jones, is the very prim and proper husband of Mary Jones (Rachael Stirling), a financial analyst who seems more committed to her job than to her marriage. Meanwhile, the sheik’s consultant in the project, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), who entices Dr. Jones with a money-is-no-object offer, is in love with a soldier (Tom Mison) who has suddenly been deployed to the Middle East.

Encouraging them in the fishing project is Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), the Prime Minister’s press secretary, who seizes this “goodwill” story as an opportunity to counteract some bad war-related publicity coming out of the Middle East. (Chillingly, Maxwell uses her access to high-security government search engines to scan through private emails for references to the Middle East. And they pop right up on her screen, including the “private” communication to Jones from the sheik’s representative, requesting a salmon fishery in Yemen. Yikes!) Normally so drab and serious in her roles, Thomas displays an unexpected talent for humor in this film. With her delightfully droll delivery; she effortlessly steals every scene. And that is no easy theft, for a film in which every actor is so adept at displaying that bemused, self-effacing kind of British humor that always seems to say, “Oh, did I do something funny?” The film is simply charming, through and through.

One of the sheik’s chief concerns when Jones and Co. are ready to transfer the salmon to Yemen is whether farm-bred fish that have never seen a river will run, or whether they will just swim passively in circles. This underscores the film’s theme: do people who have been domesticated to the point of emasculation still have the instinct to know when they have been set free? Alfred Jones proclaims, “It’s in the very core of their being to run. Even if they never have. Even if their parents never did!” He’s talking about himself, of course, although he doesn’t know it. Juxtaposed against this hopeful declaration is his wife Mary’s cutting remark, “It’s in your DNA to return to a dry, dull, pedestrian life.” Where is his true home? And how much effort will it take to find it? That’s what the film asks its viewers.

Ultimately this is a film about swimming against the tide. As Dr. Jones deliberates on whether to accept the whimsical challenge of bringing salmon to a desert, we see an overhead shot of him hurrying along a crowded sidewalk within a school of gray-suited businessmen. Suddenly he turns and makes his way through the crowd in the opposite direction, to tell Harriet that he accepts the offer. He is swimming upstream (yes, to spawn!), and we know that he will be caught before the film is over.

“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” directed by Halle Lasstrom. Lionsgate, 2011, 107 minutes.