- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Social media and the Internet provide fertile new methods for bullies. Despite efforts to combat physical intimidation and raise awareness, the problem remains for America’s youths, with online harassment the latest battleground.

Films, too, have tackled the topic in various ways, often centering on revenge plots from the tormented against their fetters, such as in “Bully” and “My Bodyguard.” However, Michigan filmmaker Amy S. Weber, a mother of two girls, hopes to change the conversation about bullying by focusing not on superior force but rather on love. Ms. Weber spoke with The Washington Times about her latest film, “A Girl Like Her,” with which she seeks to do just that.

“The main hope I have is that it opens up the dialogue and embraces the fact that bullies are people too,” Ms. Weber said. “These are children in formative years. These are not grown adults who cannot change. [They] have learned a behavior through some sort of inspiration in their own life.”

“A Girl Like Her,” a fictional narrative told in documentary style, follows teenager Jessica (Lexi Ainsworth) who, through a simple misunderstanding, becomes the unfortunate target of the incessant taunts of her onetime friend Avery (Hunter King). Avery recruits her tribe to constantly tease and humiliate Jessica, pushing her to the breaking point. The film is as much as Avery’s underlying hurt as it is about the anguish she visits upon Jessica.

“There are a lot of cases, especially with females, [where] it normally starts from someone inside the circle who then gets ostracized, excommunicated, if you will,” Ms. Weber said.

As important, she said, is discerning the central reason for why young people feel the need to exert such malicious power over their peers.

“We need to include the underlying excuse of why a bully bullies — understand that people project pain in different ways,” she said. “We have to first identify that the behavior is caused by pain. Deep-rooted pain is unconscious, and that is expressed through aggression and anger and [the] demoralizing of another person.”

The choice to frame the story inside a faux-documentary modus, in which all of the dialogue was improvised, was key to the impact of her message, Ms. Weber felt.

“To put it in a traditional format would have stripped away the essence of how real the film is,” she said. “Young people watching it, they see themselves as characters. They see that as their school. We’ve had so many kids say, ‘My god, that is my school, that is my life that they’re telling the story about.’”

Ms. Weber believes bullying may be on the rise because of the ubiquitous reach of social media and what she calls a gradual weakening of community cohesion.

“We are out of touch with each other, even as neighbors,” she said. “Social media, the Internet has taken away the interpersonal parts of being a human being. Some of us use social media as a way to motivate and inspire people and spread joy. And there’s a great many [who] use it in a very negative way and spread more negativity and drama in the world.”

Ms. Weber touts her work with the Peacekeeper Movement as a way to bring about a cultural shift that she hopes “A Girl Like Her,” which opens Friday in the Washington area, will continue.

“I certainly can’t say that I have the answers to everything,” she said. “That’s going to take a collaborative effort. But I really hope to lead that change through the Peacekeeper Movement, a follow-up to the film, I believe it is; I know it’s possible.”

Despite the film’s raw approach and the content being often difficult to watch, the director believes that all students beginning a school year can see her film to spur an “understanding of a new community that allows young people to feel safe, to be themselves, to be celebrated, to teach [that] every one of the members of that school has a backing, that the community stands for something different.”

“So as long as schools take a moment away from academia and focus on the humanist way of life versus academics, then I feel it will be a huge success.”

Ms. Weber is proud of the fact that her daughters are attuned to the dangers of adolescent oppression and make concerted efforts to speak out when they behold such torture.

“They know how to handle those situations with love and kindness,” she said. “This isn’t about a bully getting punched in the nose by one of my daughters. This is about them showing passion and understanding that that bully is a person too.

“What we tend to do as a culture is wanting the bully to hurt, get punished and get a taste of their own medicine,” she said. “I would ask people who believe that, ‘Has that worked?’ So we need to begin again and make sure we embrace the bully in that conversation.”

It’s a tall order to embrace the oppressor as well as the victim, but Ms. Weber insists that such a recipe for healing can be accomplished.

“We have a saying [on the film], and it’s kind of our motto,” she said, “that the only way to save the victim is to heal a bully, and I believe that with all my heart.”

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