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Bully: Movies Making A Difference for Children

A list of documentaries aiming to help children grow up in a more joyful world.

The Weinstein Co. made the choice to open the new documentary “Bully” on April 13, the same day as Joss Whedon's “The Cabin in the Woods” and Luc Besson's “Lockout,” hoping to appeal to the more sophisticated and socially aware film goers. 

As part of this release, Cinema Siren thought to create a list of documentaries aiming to help children grow up in a more joyful world—a list of movies important to their welfare and safety. These are not necessarily movies for children to watch, but rather those that have made or are trying to make a difference in their lives.

It is fascinating to me that I found so much controversy in my research for this list. It seems most documentaries encounter some kind of resistance, or have issues. In the case of the new release, Emily Bazelon, a film critic for Slate.comtook exception to the way one subject, a boy who killed himself ostensibly because of excessive bullying, was represented. Apparently he had ADHD, bipolar disorder and Asperger's syndrome, and it wasn't given as a significant factor in his suicide. The critic, who has written extensively about bullying, has kicked up quite a fuss (The filmmakers responded to EW.com).

In the same article, Ann Haas of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention indicates concern that without a complete picture of the child who committed suicide's mental state, other bullied kids could romanticize him and see suicide as a clearer option. Having read her article, and as someone who has a close friend with Asperger's Syndrome, I understand the concerns raised here. The disorder shouldn't be pushed under the rug to serve a greater purpose. Perhaps they could have used the other very inspiring and moving examples and not included his story as it relates to bullying.

This shouldn't be enough to discount or avoid a movie that could create a lot more awareness with parents and teachers around the country. However, it's always good to bear as much information in mind as possible when you walk into the theater, especially if you do so with your children.

Bully initially received an R rating for excessive cursing, and the studio decided to release the film unrated, which also caused a flap. This meant that no one under 17 could see it without an adult. However, the film finally received a PG13 rating on April 6.

Another movie, To Be and To Have, has had its positive effects dulled by the fact that one of its subjects, George Lopez, an inspiring teacher in rural France, asked for a percentage of the film's profits and took the filmmakers to court. He was denied, with the French film union saying had he been successful it would mean "the death of the documentary, undermining the crucial principle that subjects should not be paid to participate." The newspapers carried the headline: To Be and To Have: The teacher would rather have." Well, that's unfortunate.

Of course there are many worthy films out there, and certainly Bully's heart is in the right place, so it should be seen. Here, though, are 10 inspiring films that have in some way made a difference.

• The Up Series (1964) — Fourteen British children's lives are documented starting at age 7, and the series has had seven episodes spanning 49 years. In 2005 it topped the list of The 50 Greatest Documentaries on England's Channel 4 program. The next in the series, 56 Up, is scheduled for May 2012. A fascinating study of class, of personal choice, and longevity, it is listed by Roger Ebert as one of his top ten greatest films of all time. *

• Willowbrook: The Last Disgrace (1972) — Geraldo Rivera, then an investigative reporter, broke the story of a now closed (1987) home for emotionally challenged kids in the Willowbrook Staten Island neighborhood who were kept in squalor and treated as you'd expect in the 1980s. This documentary led to federal civil rights legislation protecting the handicapped, and won Rivera a Peabody Award. The shocking expose shows how great change can come from speaking bravely about wrongs being committed, and literally changed thousands of lives for the better. Some would say it changed the lives all handicapped kids thereafter. **

• Waiting for Superman (2010) — While there is some controversy about the perspective the filmmakers show about the failures of American public education, this documentary does reveal some glaring weaknesses in the system, and the potential solutions we can as a society consider.  It does what documentaries hopefully do, which is to raise questions about how we can strengthen our schools and educate our children better. * 

• Paper Clips (2004) — Students at a Tennessee middle school, in an effort to wrap their heads and hearts around the enormity of the Holocaust, collect 6 million paper clips to grasp the concept. They were inspired by Norwegians who wore paperclips on their lapels during WWII in silent protest. One of the big breaks for them collecting them came through an article in the Washington Post on April 7th, 2001, written by Dita Smith. Ultimately a monument of an authentic German transport car with 11 million clips was uncovered on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. A very moving example of inspired action in a heartfelt film. * 

• Being Elmo (2011) — This documentary follows the career of puppeteer Kevin Clash, who created and operates the Sesame Street character, grew up poor in Baltimore and began his love of puppets as a child. This is a sweet charming and inspiring story that is a wonderful way to show kids if they dream it they can be it. Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg. *

• Food Inc. (2008) — Directed by Emmy winning filmmaker Robert Kenner, it examines corporate farming in the United States, concluding agribusiness produces food that is unhealthy, environmentally harmful and abusive to both animals and employees. They welcomed onscreen rebuttals from various food companies but all declined. Highly rated by critics. (The Toronto Sun called it "terrifying" and "frankly riveting.") Nominated for an Oscar, this movie forces us to consider the future of food for our children, and what kind of legacy we are leaving for them. *

• The Living Sea (1995) — I really wanted to include one nature documentary, so… this movie explores diverse marine locales in an effort to show the importance of protecting the ocean, and emphasizes the interconnectedness and interdependence of all creatures on earth. Our oceans, about which we still know little, are most essential to our future. Yet another example of Meryl Streep's talent, who narrates beautifully, and there is music by Sting. Yes, it's entertaining, but it's also beautiful, enlightening, and it's filmed by Oscar nominated director and cinematographer Greg MacGillivray, who is known for his underwater imagery. *

• The Power of Forgiveness (2007) — In this documentary, the psychological and physical effects of forgiveness under a wide variety of conditions are examined and its transformative effects are shown in powerful concrete ways. It opens a dialogue and is helpful viewing for anyone struggling with past hurts. If children and parents can understand forgiveness as an idea, conflicts can more easily be resolved and let go. *

• TED: The Future We Will Create (2007) — This documentary offers an all access pass to the annual TED conference, showing a diversity of artists and thinkers converging to exchange ideas. It opens up the possibility your kids might seek inspirational videos on the TED website, on which there are hundreds of talks on a wide variety of subjects. A great opportunity to teach open minded and "out of the box" thinking to your kids, which of course we want in order to make a better future with them! *

• Sun City Picture House (2011) — Featured in the first America West Film Festival last year, this movie is an amazing and moving story about a Haitian man who loves movies and enlists the help of a local priest and aid workers to build the first working movie theater since the 2010 earthquake, on a hill above a tent city of displaced Haitians. It is about perseverance, staying open hearted, and working together in the most beautiful way. ***

I hope you find something inspiring on the above list, and, dear readers, I hope you'll offer your own recommended and favorite life changing documentaries in the comments section! I did a ton of watching to choose the films above, but I'm first and foremost, as you know, a movie lover, so any recommendations for myself and our shared readers are welcome.

We are all lucky indeed to have film artists inspired to create such informative and moving work. Enjoy!

About this column: Leslie Combemale, "Cinema Siren", is a movie lover and aficionado in Northern Virginia. Alongside Michael Barry, she owns ArtInsights, an animation and film art gallery in Reston Town Center. She has a background in film and art history. She often is invited to present at conventions such as the San Diego Comic Con, where she has been a panelist for The Art of the Hollywood Movie Poster and the Harry Potter Fandom discussion. Check out her gallery at www.artinsights.com or see more of her reviews and interviews on www.artinsightsmagazine.com.

Leslie Combemale April 13, 2012 at 10:17 PM
I wish i could find the original "last disgrace" i had to watch it bundled with other stuff...it must have been so shocking when it came out. does anyone remember it firsthand or ever seen the place in person? i found the whole story amazing in terms of how much awareness to a problem can bring about solution. it took a long time, but still...
Leslie Combemale April 13, 2012 at 10:26 PM
Update: I went on Twitter and found LOTS of folks tweeting about my list who are involved in awareness about Aspergers--i asked them what they thought about the controversy, and if they've seen the movie. Interesting...

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