Hit each other – but don’t use language!

Hit each other – but don’t use language!

It can’t get more bizarre. The controversy over the R-rating for the BULLY documentary, released in US cinemas last Friday, shows once again that movie censors can get lost in semantics — losing sight of the bigger picture and above all the context of the film they are judging.

BULLY PosterBULLY is a character-driven feature documentary about teenagers and their parents whose stories represent several facets of America’s bullying epidemic — with over 13 million kids being bullied at school, online, on the streets and elsewhere. The film follows teenagers and their families over the course of the 2009/10 school year, including the stories of Tyler Long and Ty Smalley who killed themselves after being bullied.

The Weinstein Company applied for a PG-13 rating but the MPAA handed the documentary an R certificate for some language. This means kids under the age of 17 can’t see the film unless an adult is with them — effectively, the target audience is barred from watching BULLY.

First of all, it seems rather pointless to rate a documentary for its language, especially on a crisis that has its very origins in language.

BULLY director Lee Hirsch:

“The small amount of language in the film that’s responsible for the R rating is there because it’s real. It’s what the children who are victims of bullying face on most days.”

The MPAA decision could be seen as excessive formality but the problem goes a lot deeper. Regardless of the huge amount of PG-13-rated violence in cinemas, it’s about facing and dealing with a reality that has long caught up with millions of kids and compromises their childhood, and it doesn’t matter whether they are victims, witnesses or bystanders.

Film still from BULLY

Ratings are meant to be a guidance for responsible parents but they don’t prevent children from seeing a film they really want to see. Documentaries like BULLY are not necessarily on their must-see list though, even if they should be. So it would be up to the parents to ignore the seemingly arbitrary MPAA rating however, many parents leave the judgement to the censors altogether — taking their ratings as gospel.

Having said this, ratings become not only a political issue but also a political instrument. The MPAA suggested just a small edit to the language would have resulted in a PG-13 rating — meaning editing out a swearing or beeping over some instances of the F-word would have saved the day. Nevermind the rest of the violent and brutal language reportedly spoken in the documentary.

This seems so out of touch that it should make us wonder if there are larger issues at stake. It’s election year, and in the face of a severe economic crisis with all its moral, psychological and spiritual side effects, the subject of bullying also illuminates the profound failings of a society as such.

Film still from BULLY

So it seems apt to ponder if BULLY is bullied off the to-watch list for many teens and their parents for reasons that have little to do with language, or whether the MPAA reasoning is a fig leaf covering up a mindset that wants to keep a hot topic from public awareness.

A documentary like BULLY could help to comprehend the reasons for a problem of epic proportions whose consequences may literally hit the streets once this teenager generation has grown up — being parents, teachers and school administrators themselves.

BULLY could also show ways out of the crisis — leading parents, teachers and above all children to take matters in their own hands. After all, if a documentary can convey a positive and actionable message, despite its haunting subject, it has achieved more than a film that spares its audience the ultimate truth by cutting out a few words that might be offending.

Ratings can make or break a film, that’s commonplace. More often than not, studios and filmmakers heedfully adjust their scripts to accommodate a rating policy that seems to disregard the cultural context of a film. Documentaries don’t have the luxury of script-adjusting — it’s called documentary for a reason.

On a positive note, the MPAA rating for BULLY has triggered a public outcry. The filmmakers, appealing the MPAA decision, have been supported by stars such as Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep and Justin Bieber, and an online petition set up by bullying victim Katy Butler has garnered more than 500,000 signatures.

Although the campaign didn’t change the MPAA decision, it might give alternative rating organisations like Common Sense Media a boost and last but not least, get parents to take back responsibility when it comes to “rating” a movie. I know a lot of parents who already ignore the “official” ratings and make up their own minds as to what they let their kids see, and what not. And that’s how it should be.

About Jonahh Oestreich

Jonahh Oestreich

One of the Editors in Chief and our webmaster, Jonahh is a photographer and journalist who has been working in the media industry for over 15 years, mainly in television, design and art. As a boy, he made his first short film with an 8mm camera and the help of his father. His obsession with (moving) images and stories hasn’t faded since.

His passion for intricate stories and the ‘seven basic plots’ (ask him!) often times makes his friends and family put him in the doghouse for "predicting" too many twists and endings.

Jonahh has his own blog at De Omnibus Dubitandum, and you can follow him on Twitter @jonahhphoto.