Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Fighting Back Against The Bullies

Harvey Weinstein's recent battle to secure a PG-13 rating for Bully was a classic example of film industry power brokers attacking the messenger instead of heeding the message. Whatever crude language may have been included in the original edit of the film was language being spewed by kids who feel compelled to attack those they perceive as vulnerable targets.

Classic demonstrations of "boys will be boys" behavior were a frequent feature of Malcolm in the Middle, where the testosterone-charged Reese (the oldest of three brothers) loved to pick on younger kids, bully them into doing his homework, and embrace violence as a one-size-fits-all solution.

With today's youth spending so much time playing violent video games -- and action movies aimed at a demographic of teenage boys who like to see things explode and watch people get beaten up -- it should be obvious that poor parenting can't be the only factor contributing to a nation of adolescent thugs.

Whether kids see bullying as a way to prove their superiority, exert their newfound masculinity, or simply as an opportunity for comic relief at someone else's expense, it's important to understand that bullying is nothing new. Even after college hazing rituals have resulted in accidental deaths and numerous gay teens have committed suicide, many parents and school administrators cling to the misguided belief that being the victim of bullying "is all part of growing up.

Herndon Graddick, the new President of GLAAD recalls that:
"It wasn't until I left Alabama for California that I learned that everything I had been taught was essentially bullshit. I got pissed. Kids across the country are making themselves miserable and, frankly, leading themselves to the brink of suicide because of the bullshit they learn from a bigoted society and it's the role of GLAAD to fix that. We're no longer the silent sort of invisible presence in our community. My ambition is for gay people and transgender people to be treated fairly in the media just like anybody else. I think it's finally time for us to grab our power and really use it to make sure that we're not sort of treated as second-class citizens anymore. I think it's time for our community to go on the offensive. We're not going to be the punching bags anymore." 
While Graddick's sentiments are laudable, it's important to understand that bullying isn't restricted to incidents of homophobia. Whether one examines films like 1989's Heathers, 1994's Disclosure, or 2004's Mean Girls, it becomes obvious that girls learn how to manipulate, shame, and gang up on their peers just as maliciously as boys opt for violence as the ideal solution to any challenge.

A tendency to bully others may offer early warning signs about one's likelihood of becoming an abusive spouse and/or co-worker, a pathological liar, and or a professional criminal. Need some examples? Think about the behavior of rabid Republicans, Catholic bishops, and hotheaded celebrities like Bill O'Reilly, Nancy Grace, Mel Gibson, Grover Norquist, and Rush Limbaugh. Or sit back and enjoy all six seasons of The Sopranos.

From 1782's Les Liaisons Dangereuses to 1954's Lord of the Flies, bullying has been a staple of literature. These days it seems to have formed an unholy alliance with fundamentalist religions.

Despite the tendency of many Americans to think that the whole world revolves around them, the phenomenon of bullying takes place in any society where power games lead to one person attempting to dominate another. Three films recently screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival show what non-homophobic bullying looks like in other parts of the world.

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In Surveillant (an 18-minute Canadian short by Yan Giroux), a teenager shows up for his first day on the job as a monitor at Montreal's Parc Dufresne. He soon discovers that, to the gang of teenage bullies who stalk the grounds at all hours of day and night, he's little more than fresh meat ripe for an initiation.

As the new employee drives a tractor around the park, mowing the grass and collecting garbage, he continues to be harassed by the park's denizens (who have obviously taken their cues from horror films). Here's the trailer:

In Alfie Barker's five-minute short entitled Assumption, a British minority student discovers that someone has written the word "loser" in his school notebook. Instead of succumbing to intimidation, he calmly and methodically goes to the top floor of a local parking garage, folds the page from his notebook into a paper airplane and sends it flying out into the world below him. The boy's method of coping is simple: turn something hateful into a thing of beauty and send it back into the world.

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Written and directed by Tusi Tamasese, The Orator stars Fa'afiaula Sanote as Saili, a Samoan dwarf who, in addition to facing ridicule because of his physique, carries the social stigma of having married a woman who was banished from another village. Saili is currently being bullied by a woman who wants to plant yams near the graves of his parents as well as by the male villagers, who show little respect for him.

Fa'afiaula Sanote stars as Saili in The Orator

After humiliating Saili at his place of work, the men are sent by the villagers to Saili's home to request an ifoga. According to Samoan culture, three elements are necessary to sustain an ifoga (a ritual where the offending party pleads for pardon from the offended party):
  1. A sense of remorse and shame by the perpetrator, 
  2. Accountability by the family and village, and 
  3. Forgiveness by the victim’s family. Traditionally the culprit(s) must kneel while covered in fine mats. Ritual acceptance by the offended party occurs when they approach the ifoga party and pull away the mats.
Saili keeps watch over his dying wife in The Orator

With his wife, Vaaiga (Tausili Pushparaj) in failing health, his unmarried teenage daughter, Litia (Salamasina Mataia), newly pregnant, and having recently lost his job, Saili’s predicament takes a turn for the worse when, as he is digging his wife’s grave, his obnoxious brother-in-law (Ioata Tanielu Poto) steals Vaaiga’s body during a rainstorm. According to the film's production notes:
"Death has no place in Samoa. Every Samoan who lives his culture speaks to the dead. The dialogue between the living and the dead is the essence of a Samoan spiritual being. It is this dialogue that provides the substance and direction to his life. In order to understand this dialogue, you need to analyze the mythological, the spiritual, cultural, and historical reference points of Samoans. People bury their relatives in the front of their homes so that they still see them, talk to them, and be in their presence."
Poster art for The Orator

Because Saili's size is no match for Poto's might -- and his culture has a highly developed tradition of oratory (prior to the arrival of any missionaries, communication in Samoa was exclusively oral) --  the dwarf must find the emotional strength to become a talking chief, or orator.

Shot on the island of Upolu, Tamasese’s film has a rare visual splendor (thanks in large part to Leon Narbey’s magnificent cinematography). Though the dialogue may be sparse, The Orator is filled with a brooding tension. Tim Prebble’s beautiful score and sound design more than compensate for any lack of scintillating conversation.

The Orator gives a sobering view into how dishonor, dysfunction, and despair exact their toll in a pair of small Samoan villages. Here's the trailer:

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