‘The shame stayed with me.’ How a bullying incident from 1965 became an Oscar nominee.
Sadly, it could have been any day in fifth grade. A kid got the whole class in trouble, so the whole class retaliated, piling onto him outside of the school. Some spat, some hit – taking turns until the principal and teacher broke it up.
Jay Rosenblatt had largely forgotten the specifics of why he and his peers attacked another child in 1965, until a crazy coincidence helped him piece together the memory.
While working on his 1994 documentary “The Smell of Burning Ants,” about growing up male in America, Rosenblatt hired a voiceover artist named Richard Silberg. Going through the script, they realized they were in the same fifth grade class. And they were both present for a scene that Silberg was narrating: when they bullied another student named Richard, who, since there were too many Richards in the class, was called “Dick.”
The bullying of Dick was just one moment in a larger film, but the beshert of finding Silberg inspired its own project six years ago. In “When We Were Bullies,” nominated for the Oscar for Best Short Documentary. Rosenblatt tracked down his other classmates at P.S. 194 in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. All of them remembered Dick, and many recalled the day they ganged up on him. If the details were hazy, the guilt wasn’t.
Rosenblatt’s short is a poignant, if funny, examination of the dark human instincts of groupthink and the bystander effect and the toll that bullying takes not just on the victim, but on the perpetrators.
I spoke with Rosenblatt over Zoom about the Jewish geography behind the film and what it was like to examine his bullying past. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
PJ Grisar: A lot of your films are about bullies, in one case historical monsters, dictators. But also Anita Bryant. I’m wondering what draws you into that psychology. I know you worked in a psych unit as a therapist before you were a filmmaker. Maybe it’s an unconscious thing?
Jay Rosenblatt:I didn’t make that connection with the Anita Bryant film, but you’re right — she was a bully. Of course, “Human Remains,” the one about dictators, obviously I made that connection. And especially what’s going on in the world right now, it feels like even this new film is more timely than I would have liked. But yeah, I think it is more unconscious. My films are very psychological – for lack of a better word maybe a little taboo. I guess my motivation originally to be a therapist never shifted. The films are not all therapeutic or come from that place, but a lot of them are. I think that is still in me to a great extent.
You track down your classmates, but you also track down your teacher. Mrs. Bromberg – the film’s star in some ways. She’s not one to mince words. Especially about whether people would actually want to see this film. That it could be “tedious.”
That was pure gold.
What was it like to get the perspective of the teacher – the adult in the room?
At the reunion, which again was one of those crazy coincidences – I had just started writing grants for this film and then I get this email inviting me to a fifth grade reunion of PS 194 – I met this schoolmate. She was in the same grade but not in this class and she told me that Mrs. Bromberg came into her ophthalmology office in Florida.
When I spoke to her, I said “I have to see her.” She was lovely, but like you said, she does not mince words, she’s very blunt. She’s very old school. I knew going into it that whether she remembered or not it was still going to be something that would end up in the film, because it was just so amazing that she was still around at 92 and still quite with it. She said some things that kind of brought me back to why some people liked her as a teacher but why some of the people I interviewed did not.
Some people said that she was a bully.
One woman said that she was a bully and a couple of people had her in third grade and they did not have a good experience with her. And when I spoke to Mrs. Bromberg, she didn’t like teaching the younger kids, she was very clear about that. But she did like fifth grade. And for many of us she was our favorite teacher in grade school. One person loved her because she taught us how to read The New York Times, and what I mean by that is how to fold it on the subway and turn it – she taught us that in fifth grade and he says to this day he still remembers that.
Is she still around?
Sadly she passed away during COVID. The final creative day of making this film I was doing the sound mix at Skywalker Ranch in Marin. I was very fortunate to be able to do that. I got the text the final day that she had passed away. I was really sad for her, but also I really wanted her to see the film. Her son came to the screening I had at DOC NYC so he did see it and he said the best thing I could have imagined he said: “She would have loved it.”
And thrilled it was nominated for an Oscar – or maybe proven wrong in a way.
Maybe she’d be going to the Oscars! Knowing her, she’d want to. She had a lot of life energy in her still.
A big part of the film is you feeling conflicted and coming to the conclusion that maybe this is bullying Dick all over again. Now that it’s out there in the world, are you still wrestling with that?
I want to point out that I don’t refer to him as “Dick.” I use it for shorthand because of the two Richards. I never remember even calling him that. I had every intention of trying to interview him, but it became clear to me that this might not be a good thing for him – and why would I do that and what are the ethics of doing that? I didn’t want to impose the film on him. What if he said “I hate the idea that you’re making this film?” The film is not about him, the film is about us. And this is not to disparage him, he could be anyone in anyone’s life. We all either have been there, or have been a part of that or have witnessed that as we grow up. Ultimately I think the film became more universal when I decided to protect his identity. At first I even had his photo as a kid and I felt uncomfortable about that.
There have been a couple of responses, and there may be more as the film is shown more, where people are really not looking at the film closely enough and feel almost indignant that Dick’s voice is not in there, even though I think the film does a pretty good job of explaining why. Maybe because some people get triggered and think “he should have given the bullied person a voice.” I get it from their perspective, but that’s not the film I made
That’s something I appreciate about the film; it covers the bullying phenomenon in a way that’s not necessarily simple. It’s not just “We had a school bully and he picked on all of us.” It’s about the bystander effect in a way. It’s true that people at different points in school are either bullied or bullies – people alternate.
I think a lot of people do have a simplistic view, and what’s clear to me – look, I was bullied. Not so much in school but my neighborhood. There was a guy who’d say “sit down next to me on this bench,” and he’d start punching me in the arm full force. I’ve been on both sides, and a lot of people have, and we switch roles and sometimes because we’ve been bullied we are complicit because we don’t want to be bullied more. It’s very complex.
What was it like in the end to interrogate that part of yourself that was a party to this? In some ways that is the story of the film.
For many years I was falling back in my own mind on the fact that I was a collaborator in this but not the bully, and then I think in the making of the film and being honest with myself I was not seeing a big distinction between being complicit and being the instigator. And I think I was assuaging my sense of guilt by thinking “Oh it wasn’t as bad as being the bully.” But really when you think about it, there is no power for a bully without all of the complicity that’s involved. That’s what my film “Human Remains” somewhat was about. What would Hitler be without the German people following him? It’s a hard thing to come to grips with. There would have been some kids that would have had the courage at that age to say “Break it up.” In this case, our teacher and principal broke it up, and to be honest, I don’t think I’d remember this incident at all if we weren’t caught. Mrs. Bromberg called us “animals.” I think that was more traumatic than what we actually did. I think it was the shame more than anything that stayed with me.
Have you heard from Richard/Dick?
I haven’t. It’s very possible I will at some point. I just hope that his anonymity and privacy is respected – I’d rather him never hear about this. I would hate to add to anything we already did to him 50 years ago.