Back in November I had the opportunity to attend a documentary film festival. Out of the slate of programming, I chose to see the Shorts that were based in NYC.

One of the short docs I saw was excellent, and as would happen, is nominated for a 2022 Academy Award. Let me preface that I thought this was really well done, but I am about to tell you about it, so there will be spoilers.

When We Were Bullies is about a filmmakers recollection of a bullying event that happened when he was in 5th grade, back in, I believe, 1965/66 on a playground in a Brooklyn schoolyard. The class felt that one boy in particular deserved a beating, and after school they pounced on him.

Fifty years later the filmmaker really felt badly about this and decided to contact his old classmates and his teacher and talk to them about the incident. While some did not remember the incident at all, they all remembered the kid who was victimized. They all thought of the victim as a bit of an oddball, a kid who didn’t quite fit in. Those who did remember the incident felt bad about it. He uses pictures from the fifth grade class picture to highlight as we hear the recorded interviews. At no time in the doc do we see a picture of the victim or know anything other than his name was Richard and called Dick by his classmates (lots of Richards in that year in Brooklyn), and that at some point in his adult life he was a TV producer with a decent life.

Flash forward to the present. I’m watching this doc at a festival, which means the filmmaker is there and will be available for questions.

At the end of the doc, the filmmaker says he wrote a letter to the bullied student and says that he regrets his actions on that day.

Someone in the audience asked the filmmaker if the victim responded to the letter. The filmmaker admitted that he never actually sent the letter. He said he didn’t want to rekindle what could/would have been a traumatic incident, and felt it was better to just leave things as they were.

So now we are coming to my point:

By excluding the victim from the documentary, not showing his face or interviewing him, were they once again bullying Richard/Dick? This kid was seen as an oddball and an outsider…fifty plus years later did they still make him an outcast?

I did not ask the filmmaker this question, but it was TOTALLY the first thing that came to my mind. Based on what I’ve told you, what do you think?

As stated, this is a nominee for an Academy Award, and I’d say, as having seen the other nominated short docs, I think this is the winner. I wonder if the filmmaker has since contacted Richard/Dick and told him about the film. I don’t normally watch the Academy Awards themselves, but I wonder if I should DVR it just to see if this shunned classmate will be invited. I believe that HBO bought the rights to the doc, so you may be able to stream it for yourself.

FYI- I think it is worth the watch if you can.

63 thoughts on “Bullies

  1. Your feelings reflect protection from the filmmaker. Might be valid, but you know there’s that flip side to all of it. His own fear of being confronted by the victim for what he (others) did. If you really want to make amends even after 50 years, isn’t it best to give the victim a voice if they choose that option? Was he allowing his own assumptions and fears to lead? Does he really understand his behavior may simply be a continuation of what happened years ago…taking away any power the victim may have.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. All excellent questions/thoughts which I have contemplated. Was he projecting? Should he have given the victim a chance to talk? I know if I were the victim I’d want to be asked…but I don’t know if everyone would feel that way

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Wow. Too bad he didn’t send the letter. It’s exactly what he needs to do.

    This is definitely wrong in my eyes. He can make a documentary but not actually attempt to fix the damage? It’s never too late to say sorry. A bullying event can affect a person throughout their entire life. Just sayin.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Actually, I think it was an act of cowardice not inviting the victim. Do I believe the filmmaker felt badly? Yes, I do. But, in this day and and age, why couldn’t he check social media and find the guy? He could message him, email him, or send his letter. All he had to do was say I’m sorry. Perhaps he would never get a response but it would have been the right thing to do.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. Ooof. I think this is a hard one. I think it could potentially revictimize the bullied person to be contacted out of the blue by the person who bullied him, so I sort of side with the filmmaker about that. On the other hand, maybe that means that this particular story shouldn’t have been told? Maybe he should have found a different story of bullying to make his film about.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. This is a tough one. I can justify the possible courses for the filmmaker, but being able to justify an action doesn’t make it right. The worst light I can put on it is that the filmmaker may have been afraid that his film would be stopped by legal action. I prefer to think that is not the case. He has done a good thing in putting a focus on bullying. I tried to put myself in the place of the person bullied. Would I want this all to be churned up again when I have worked hard to leave it behind? Would it have been worth feeling the pain all over again to hear the former children say they were sorry for their actions? I think the victim is the only one who can answer this and to do that he would have to be approached and the risk taken. I don’t have an answer for myself and certainly not for anyone else.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Absolutely he should have tried to reach out to the person who was bullied. He may in fact be revictimizing him by not reaching out, especially since he contacted other students that participated in the bullying. He could have made it right by apologizing and offering the kid who was bullied a chance to tell his story. But once again, Dick was rejected and left out by his classmates. Imagine how he would feel if he knew about this documentary. Then imagine how he would feel if his classmates reached out and apologized for what they did to him. Now that would be a powerful story, wouldn’t it? But it is hard for me to judge without even seeing it.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. While I agree with that it would have been good to contact Richard and invite his input or participation, and that the letter of apology should have been sent, I think an argument can also be made for keeping Richard out of the film. If he is included, the story becomes about him, when the intent may have been to focus more on bullying than on one individual victim. I haven’t seen the film yet, so I’m just speculating, but perhaps the intent was to compel viewers to reflect on their own experiences of bullying (as perpetrator, victim, or bystander) and think about how painful and destructive it is. Personalizing it might reduce that impact.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I wonder if the reason why he didn’t send the letter is because he was respecting the man’s privacy or his right to privacy. If the documentary wins an Oscar, the press might try to figure out who the guy was and if he is outed, there goes his privacy, especially if his life hasn’t worked out well, which the producer might be aware of or suspect if he was kind of an oddball? If I was bullied I wouldn’t want to be the subject of a world wide documentary, even if it was fifty years later!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Being the victim of a bully during my childhood and early teen years, I would appreciate a personal apology and consultation regarding the film. Maybe that will happen in response to the film, however, it should have been done first.

    By the way, I did receive an apology from the bully. She actually was in the hospital at the time I was…we both had just delivered our first babies. Her baby girl was born on my birthday…always something there to remind her❤️

    Liked by 2 people

  10. There’ve been a couple of compelling reasons expressed by other commenters why the filmmaker may have been correct in his decision not to contact Richard/Dick. But the reason he gave – that of avoiding bringing up all the trauma for Richard/Dick – is not one of them. By making the film, he is going to bring this up again, unless he has some magic methodology of ensuring that Richard/Dick will never see the film. As it’s now an Oscar nominee, it’s really very important that he does make contact, if for no other reason than to warn Richard/Dick that people may try to track him down and out him. Now that would be a potentially very traumatising experience as, let’s be honest, the kind of press that would carry that out have earned their moniker of gutter press.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I think the film maker should contact Richard and apologize. I treated a friend badly in junior high and it bothered me decade later. My daughter looked her up on FB and said, “Mom, apologize.” I did and was forgiven.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. My brother was bullied in grade school, dragged around the playground in his underwear. All the pictures of him have his glasses taped up. I empathize with Richard. I don’t think my brother ever understood why he was being bullied. My dad was one of two dentists in town and we lived in a poor rural town. My brother thought it was because he was a nerd.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Bullying is horrible, and I understand why the filmmaker made this doc, sort of a penance….however….I think the victim deserves to know

        Liked by 1 person

  12. The first thing that sprang to mind was that the director had taken the effort to produce a film about it, but couldn’t go the extra mile to reach out to the SUBJECT of the film? It appears that he was looking for an excuse to create a film.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. I totally think this was wrong. I was thinking it was great until you said that the victim never had been contacted. Then my mind shifted! How is that an apology if you never make contact with who you need to apologize too??? I think they had good intentions BUT … not contacting the victim is a big flaw.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I can understand his hesitation to confront him, but then don’t make a short movie about it. To me its like doing a puzzle but leaving the last piece out.
        Send the letter, then its up to the victim if he wants to reply. But he could know that he did his part by truly apologizing, not just making a short movie to feel better about himself.

        Liked by 2 people

  14. As a victim of bullying in my family, at elementary & high school, and as a young adult I would have preferred to have someone contact me with their intentions. Suppose Richard spent years in therapy from the incident (you say the whole class pummeled the kid, how many in the class ?) and finally managed to get over it. This stupid film could potentially be a trigger to open old wounds. The film itself cannot be the only form of an apology. To me, this film is a cowardly passive-aggressive form of bullying. What if this film pushes Richard over the edge and he decides to seek retribution, anything is possible in this day and age.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Based on my own personal experience, contacting the victim would have been a nice gesture. I was bullied in junior high, and the very day I moved across the ocean, I called my bully and chewed his ass out, let him know how much he had hurt me but how empowering it was to confront him at last (even if only through the safety of a pay phone (this being 1983)).

    I always remember that he sounded truly sorry, which made me feel better. And I like to think he never went on to bully anyone else again.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. The victim should have been contacted to find out if he even wants his story told. If this story is that good and may receive awards, the least the director could have done is reach out to the victim. I don’t like the way it was done.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Ummm, this is craziness. One of the characteristics of bullying (nowadays) is exclusion, so yeah. This is bullying on a different level. I find it out that he’d make a doc, without including the actual person’s perspective all these years. Furthermore, it’s not his place to decide if the person would be triggered or not. That’s the bullied person’s decision to say yes/no I don’t wanna participate.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. In an indirect way he was bullied again. To be the subject of a film and not know about it, to not actually hear the words “I’m sorry” from the filmmaker, it seems to dismiss what was done. Even if the intention of the film is to point out the wrongs in doing it, the actual victim gains nothing from it.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I hope and trust people change for the better as they age. I might call this “maturing” and in the best of worlds it would apply to both the bully and his victim. As someone who, at least as I recall it now, was bullied a bit as a child, I prefer to look back at the situation and think of it as the bully’s loss/problem and not mine, now or then.

    Liked by 1 person

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