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Oscar-nominated ‘Bullies’ documentary opens up a much-needed conversation

Jay Rosenblatt’s “When We Were Bullies,” the Oscar-nominated documentary short film that explores how bullying continues to affect its perpetrators, couldn’t be more timely. Though the incident in question took place more than half a century ago in a Brooklyn schoolyard, it haunts the filmmaker and many of his fellow classmates who were fifth graders when Dick, the class misfit, was verbally and physically assaulted by his cronies, who included Rosenblatt.

What’s striking about this unsettling film is not the episode itself or even any catharsis or closure that comes in the wake of a shared airing. There is none, though that fact resonates too. But more to the point this movie subtly evokes the nature of memory itself, its distorting lens and, most pointedly, the complex relationship between the past and the present, and how who we were in childhood informs (or not) who we are today. A class photo taken 50 years earlier juxtaposed to the middle aged people staring back at themselves as youngsters is existentially painful: youthful belief in the future vs. reality. Mortality is everywhere. Several faces in the yearbook now belong to the deceased.

Rosenblatt’s film succeeds in visually conjuring a time and place long gone and, by extension, the fuller meaning of loss. It’s a cinematic collage that combines archival materials of the era (movies, TV programs, educational footage) — stop-motion animation and interviews with Dick’s classmates and their fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Bromberg. Currently serving as Program Director of the Jewish Film Institute, Rosenblatt has helmed over 30 short films best known for their vivid aesthetic and subtle emotional content.

The genesis of “Bullies,” had its roots in an earlier doc, “The Smell of Burning Ants,” which explored growing up male and the toxic masculinity inculcated in young boys from early on. Rosenblatt had included a snippet of the Dick episode in that film, and was already thinking about examining the topic further. An oddball fluke set the film in motion. He discovered that the narrator whom he was auditioning for “Ants,” was a classmate of his at PS 194 and he too remembered the bullying of “Dick,” and, like Rosenblatt, felt deep shame in retrospect. Most of the students Rosenblatt tracked down were mortified, some, but not all, admitting they had thought about it over the years and endured lingering guilt.

However, Mrs. Bromberg, who is now in her 90s and living in a senior residence, had no recollection of either Dick or the bullying episode, though at the time she castigated the class as “animals.” She seems indifferent, and tells Rosenblatt that his film will have limited audience appeal. Perhaps her feelings are not surprising in light of her own experiences. We learn that her adult daughter committed suicide and that’s offered with a shrug of the shoulder too.

Dick, the centerpiece of the story, does not make an appearance. Rosenblatt said he had planned to contact him, but ultimately decided against it for fear of victimizing him yet again. It’s a risky choice on Rosenblatt’s part. One wonders about Dick’s recollections and his life’s trajectory. Nonetheless, his absence focuses the film on bullying and those kids who collude in the act. It’s about herd mentality among children. It’s hard not to think about “Lord of the Flies.”

To what degree the film fully succeeds is arguable. Short of their remorse, we glean little about the players, their journeys or how that schoolyard experience shaped them. Admittedly, it gives Rosenblatt the chance to publicly apologize. He acknowledges that he mistakenly believed that because he was a follower, not an instigator, he was not really culpable. In his mind there was a hierarchy of fault. He further reveals that, even back then, he identified with Dick as a vulnerable outlier. As Dick was being bullied, Rosenblatt was grappling with the terminal illness and death of a beloved younger brother, which destroyed his father, fractured his family, and to this day it still hurts like hell. (His film “Phantom Limb,” dealing with loss and grief, was inspired by his kid brother’s death.) Yet with all that going on he was still able to gang up on Dick. The bullying impulse was intact. Mrs. Bromberg implies it’s an innate impulse. Girls are catty and boys bully the boy who can’t catch the ball. And that’s that.

Bullying deserves further discussion than “When We Were Bullies” provides. Still, Rosenblatt’s beautifully executed and nuanced film manages to up a long-overdue conversation.

“When we were Bullies” will be aired on HBO, March 30, 9 p.m.

Simi Horwitz won a 2018 Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of New York for her Forward story, “Ruchie Freier: Hasidic Judge, American Trailblazer.” She received two 2020 New York Press Club Awards, three 2021 National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, and a 2021 Simon Rockower Award. She came in first place at the 2021 SoCal Journalism Awards (given by the LA Press Club) for her Forward story, “Gloria Steinem is Having a Moment.”

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