Filmmaker Lisa Cohen spoke with GOOD DOCS intern Danielle Pacione about her motivations and experiences filming CONFESSIONS OF A SOCIAL BULLY and how the documentary fits into the broader conversations on bullying prevention education.
Tell us about this project. Where did the idea for this documentary come from? Did it stem from any specific experiences or situations?
I started thinking about making a film about bullying many years ago when I noticed some of the girls in my daughter’s second-grade class starting to exclude kids on the playground. The girls who were being mean were actually kids I found to be quite nice and were well-liked by kids as well as adults. I wondered what was going on with them. Were they redirecting their own hurts? Reacting to some masked insecurity or jealousy? Or just playing with power?
I decided to read every children’s book and watch every movie about bullying I could get my hands on and quickly found that nearly every story about bullying took the perspective of the target, and sometimes the bystander. Perpetrators of bullying were typically portrayed as one-dimensional characters and labeled as “bad seeds.” Similarly, I learned that most bullying prevention programs focused primarily on targets and bystanders and what they could do if and when they became the victims of bullying or see bullying occur. Even in academic research, most studies on bullying still address the risk factors, short-term and long-term effects of bullying on targets and bystanders, although research on bullying perpetration is slowly increasing.
It became clear that someone needed to explore the “missing voice” in the bullying equation – the voice of the perpetrator. That’s how the idea for the film came about.
I see that you are a psychotherapist and have two teenagers of your own, how do this film and topic connect to your personal life and occupation?
I use the film in my practice as a door opener, and it has been a surprisingly effective therapy tool. It really resonates with my teen clients who have experienced bullying as well as with parents whose kids have been involved in bullying in some way. For kids who have bullied others, watching Natasha articulate her story allows them to feel safer opening up about their own acts of aggression and creates a safe space for them to explore the experiences that have led them to a place where they’ve decided to use aggression as a coping mechanism. For parents whose kids have been involved in bullying, Natasha’s story provides an opportunity to build empathy for everyone in the bullying circle, which helps them have deeper, more nuanced, and productive conversations with their kids. It’s gratifying to see the film helping others know they’re not alone in their feelings, no matter what side of the equation they’re on.
In terms of parenting my own teenagers, Natasha’s story has encouraged me to remind them that when someone says or does something insensitive or mean, it’s important to remember that they (my kids) don’t know what motivated this behavior and to consider all the unknown possibilities before reacting. I’m constantly telling them to “zoom out” and consider everything they don’t know about the situation. These conversations have helped my kids grow their awareness and insight, and have made them feel more grounded and less apt to jump to react or go along with someone else’s reaction. Natasha has been an excellent teacher in my home!
How did you find Natasha, the young woman who shares her story of being a bully? Was she hesitant about making her past public?
I reached out to several schools to let them know about the project and find out if they knew of anyone they thought might be willing to share their story. I spoke to teachers, counselors, principals, social workers, etc. They all loved the idea, but most were hesitant to recommend someone for a film. It’s not easy to find someone willing to reveal things about themselves they regret or are ashamed of. Finally, the principal of one middle school said, “I think I know of someone who’d be brave enough to do this.” She connected us, we met for coffee, and Natasha immediately agreed to do the film.
Natasha was never hesitant about telling her story. She repeatedly told me that she wanted to help kids who have similar feelings and experiences become more aware of the reasons why they do what they do. I have great admiration for her courage and willingness to make herself vulnerable for the benefit of others.
Why is Jane, the young woman who was bullied, not present in the film to tell her side?
After Natasha agreed to do the film, I met with Jane a couple of times, and then with the two of them together. We decided that each of them would tell the story from their own perspective. I interviewed Natasha on camera, and all seemed to be going as planned. But when it came time for Jane’s interview, she backed out of the project, saying that she had decided she didn’t want to relive that time in her life for so many people to see. I couldn’t blame her; she had gone through a lot of emotional pain in middle school. I considered canceling the project, but after some thought, and several conversations with Natasha, we both decided to continue on, and focus more on Natasha’s feelings and motivations. In the end, I think it worked out for the best; Confessions of a Social Bully is the only film I know of that takes a deep dive into the feelings of a perpetrator of school bullying in a humanizing way without justifying her behavior.
Do you have an idea or opinion on early risk factors or indicators that result in a young person becoming a “bully”?
There is no single indicator or category of early risk factors that result in a young person engaging in bullying behaviors. Kids who bully can be popular and well-connected or socially isolated; can come from intact or separated families; come from a variety of economic and cultural backgrounds; come from abusive as well as supportive homes; can get straight-As or struggle academically; can be physically stronger than others their age, or not. The only real way to predict a person’s inclination to bully others is to get to know them. Adults need to watch, listen, and learn. What are they proud of? What are they insecure about? How do they treat others when grownups are around compared to when grownups aren’t around? Do they have social power with their peers? Do they exclude others? Are they alone on the playground or in the lunchroom? How do they deal with defeat (earning a poor grade, not getting picked for a team, etc.)? What are the dynamics of the friend group? Does someone seem to be hurt (emotionally or physically) more than others? Each case is unique to a person’s situation and personality and it’s up to us as the adults in their lives, to step in and help those who show signs of needing a little – or a lot of – help with things that might, or might not, be obvious.
Why do you think there is so much bullying going on in the United States? What do you think prompted this recent “awakening” of awareness and prevention programs to tackle this phenomenon?
According to the National Center on Education Statistics, incidents of school bullying have declined over the past two decades, debunking the notion that we are experiencing a bullying epidemic. The problem is that much of the bullying that takes place now occurs in digital spaces, making it more visible and harder to escape. I think there are several reasons for the rise in awareness and prevention programs, including decreasing stigma around discussing the causes of behavioral issues, and better understanding of how social and emotional learning (SEL) skills benefit long-term mental health, academic success, professional performance, and personal contentment.
Did you acquire any new knowledge through research or other components of creating this film?
I was pleased to learn that school-based bullying prevention programs have been shown to decrease bullying by 25%, which I find very encouraging. As research on the benefits of SEL increases, SEL programs are getting better and better, and the results of these programs are convincing more school districts to incorporate SEL into their required curriculum. I’m delighted that Confessions of a Social Bully continues to find classroom audiences as either a supplement to the existing SEL curriculum or as a stand-alone program in schools that haven’t yet adopted a broader SEL curriculum. To be able to help students increase their own social and emotional awareness, and build awareness of those around them has been the most gratifying outcome of this project.
What is the ultimate message you want to promote from this film? Why should I recommend this film to someone who has not seen it?
The reason I made Confessions of a Social Bully was to bring in the “missing voice” – that of the perpetrator – into the broader conversation on bullying prevention education. When we focus most of our attention on those at the receiving end of bullying and fail to explore the reasons why some kids bully others, we limit both our understanding of the bullying circle and our efforts at true prevention. Most bullying prevention programs address the problem after the bullying has occurred, and pay short shrift to the motivations behind bullying incidents. By zooming in on Natasha’s thoughts and feelings about herself during the time in which she chose to bully Jane, I hope to show audiences that everyone in the bullying circle needs our attention – targets, bystanders, and perpetrators alike.