By Justin Stokes
Defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “one habitually cruel to others who are weaker,” bullies are those classroom creatures whose existence craves fear, respect, and dominance in the educational hierarchy that is the classroom.
But beneath their vicious facades, bullies nurse their own Achilles’ heel; a hidden panic that creates a need to compensate for their own inadequacies by mocking the flaws of others. Despite their omni-presence in society, the weakness of a tormentor is the scrutiny that makes everyone else a threat to them in the first place.
Local filmmakers Bill Cornelius, Steven Knapp, Zac Adams and Mike Stryker wanted to map the behavioral anomaly of these antagonists, thereby possibly flipping the odds against such cruelty. Hear Me Now is their thesis of the bully, taking personal stories from those targeted by school bullies and asking “just what imprint Goliath could on the mind of David?”.
Due to the nature of Nashville Arts Magazine’s print schedule, the November 3rd special screening of Hear Me Now would have missed the placement for a film review. Intrigued by the subject matter of the documentary, contributing writer Justin Stokes reached out to the filmmakers to discuss the film.
Justin Stokes (JS): Let’s discuss your personal experiences with bullying.
Bill Cornelius (BC): I’ve seen both sides of the fence when it comes to bullying. Most of my childhood was spent in Kentucky were I was very popular and extroverted. It was not usual for me to occasionally say mean things to other people just to get a laugh from my peers. I had no indication that what I was saying could be damaging to the person on the receiving end. I just enjoyed the attention it got me. At the start of middle school, my family relocated to a suburb of Chicago. Almost immediately I was ostracized and picked on for not only being the new kid, but for being from the south and having a “hick” accent. Verbal abuse directed towards me became a trend among a large percentage of my class. I dealt with this on a daily basis for the next 3-years. It destroyed my confidence and the way I viewed who I was as a person. The wounds from that time stirred in me over the years, eventually manifesting itself as clinical depression when I was 21. Depression is a lonely and dark road to be on. At my lowest point, I thought about hurting myself. Fortunately I had a very supportive family and sought counseling. For most of my 20s I worked to restore my self worth and put behind me the damaging experiences of my middle school years. It hasn’t been easy, but things are so much brighter today.
Steven Knapp (SK)- Like Bill, I have played both roles at different points. We lived in the country suburbs just outside of Hendersonville, TN. In early elementary school, I can remember being bullied by older kids on the bus; I wore glasses at the time which was enough to put a target on me. One time, I was punched and came home with a bloody nose. Later, in elementary and into middle school, my parents divorced. I turned into a bully. I now understand I was acting out my feelings on other kids because of the situation at home, which is a very common motivation. After the divorce, one of my parents turned into a bully, also acting out their frustrations. This wore me down, and then made me an easy target in middle school. My confidence was non-existent, and I felt had no voice. The consequences of experiencing bullying on all fronts made made me very introverted and socially anxious for many years, even into high school. I am very thankful for music, and the group of friends I had, who are still like my brothers today. Their friendship and playing music helped me through so much. Like Bill, I also suffered from depression. I started my journey to build self-worth in college, by becoming a leader in my fraternity, Beta Theta Pi. After a breakup in 2011, I wrestled with a deep depression that ultimately spurred me to lose 70 lbs through exercise, nutrition, and journaling. That transformation taught me how to forgive myself, know that my situation wasn’t my fault, and learn to be responsible for my own happiness. I’ve only looked forward, since.
JS: What facets of bullying are there? How has bullying evolved, and what direction is it headed in?
BC: Bullying by definition is engaging someone repeatedly with the intent of hurting that person either physically, emotionally, or mentally. Underneath that broad definition are a number of facets, all with the same intended purpose, to hurt. Boys typically can be more physical. Girls can be more psychological. With the advent of social media and a lot of the technology we have today, bullying follows kids everywhere they go, sometimes from anonymous sources. This is the reality of the world we live in today. The internet can be a monster that is used to inflict a lot of harm. But there are a number of efforts to counter that negativity that sprout up on the internet everyday.
SK: Bill summed it up very well. Because bullying can happen via internet in kids’ homes, it is more intimate than in school. This makes it feel even more powerful. We want to let kids now that they have their own power to repel such negativity in their lives.
JS: Who or what are the bullies of 2015?
BC: The bullies today are no different from the bullies of yesterday. The only difference now is that we have a lot of technology that makes it easier for bullies to remain anonymous and target their victims even outside the confines of school. When I was being bullied, I was able to escape to my home at the end of the school day. Now, with social media, young people can be harassed 24/7. Technology has created an entirely new monster.
JS: What sort of permanent or residual, long term damage can taunting from peers cause in a developing mind?
SK: My opinion is that a person’s developing identity suffers the most when experiencing the strong negative forces of bullying. For children, this can be especially damaging when they are just starting to develop personalities, habits, and attitudes that will be with them as they mature. As people, we grow and change. I think bullying causes a person to question who they are, and otherwise interrupts this development. I feel finding one’s identity, and thus, their voice, can be much harder with long-term exposure to bullying.
BC: Negative words and actions can be very damaging and have a lasting effect. You may look at a negative word directed at someone as something small, but you have no idea where that person is in their life and how that negativity will affect them. What I dealt with in middle school followed me well into adulthood, regardless of how good things were in my life. It can be viewed as a form of PTSD in a way. That person who you insulted continuously in 6th grade may still be feeling the effects of that insult at 30-years old.
JS: Bill, is bullying mostly limited to the halls of schools? If not, what sort of antagonizing do older viewers see?
BC: Generally speaking, the halls are where a lot of activity takes place due to the chaotic nature of moving between classes, etc… Though it’s definitely not limited to the halls. In my experience, some of the bullying takes place within the classroom, right under the teacher’s nose. It isn’t all pushing and shoving. Bullying can be subtle and psychological. It can be easy for an adult to miss. Gym class, recess, lunch, and the school bus are other areas that can be a hotbed for bullying. In fact, we had a principal refer to school buses as the “wild west” because of the lack of adult supervision present and the many instances of bullying that takes place as a result. If a kid wants to find a way to bully another kid, they will, regardless of the setting. The internet has made that aspect so much worse.
JS: Bill, it’s my understanding that you featured schools within the region to highlight this problem. What sort of stories from your interview subjects can you share?
BC: We didn’t feature any schools in-particular, but we did get a lot of help from Grassland Middle School in Franklin. One of the most surprising aspects of the film’s production is that many schools refused to help us. We think this is due to the schools in-question not having a firm grasp on bullying and no countermeasures or programs in place. They feared we would “call them out”. Grassland Middle was the complete opposite. They boast a very comprehensive anti-bullying program that has had a lot of success. They not only provided us with faculty that spoke candidly about bullying in the film, but they very openly allowed us to shoot all of our reenactment footage in their school.
JC: Bill, How does one correct the problem of bullying?
BC: Unfortunately there is no way to completely eliminate bullying. It’s an issue that will persist so long as there are differences among us. What we have to do as a society is be mindful of the problem. Not sweep it under the rug in hopes that it goes away. We have to keep our eyes open. As adults we need to be beacons of light for these kids. They need to know that they have people they can talk to and confide in. That they aren’t alone. Sometimes all it takes is for someone else to tell a bullied young person that everything is going to be okay and that they are loved. That makes all the difference in the world and could even mean the difference between life and death.
JS: Steven, What objectives are you trying to accomplish by highlighting the problem of bullying? What demographics are you trying to hit with this? Just those in school? Parents? Businesses? Consumers?
SK: It is great to promote more harmony amongst people. We want this film to be a vehicle that will help change peoples’ lives. I want anyone who sees it to really take a pause and consider their situation and role. Demographics are mature children, pre-teens, and young adults, ranging from 10-17. I think parents should see the film with their kids and discuss. It is a net positive to society, so we welcome anyone with an interest.
JS: Have lawmakers done enough to curb this problem?
SK: I’m not sure that bullying is something that can be stopped in the statehouse; I think it needs to be addressed in the schoolhouse. We can’t legislate the problem away, but we can talk about it. One of the great moments in Hear Me Now is when Columbine survivor Craig Scott goes into a school to talk to the kids there. I think this is the kind of programming that will be more effective than new laws in the long run.
BC: Parents, faculty, and kids are who can help curb this problem. It won’t be a vote or the stroke of a pen. We need communities and schools to acknowledge that this is a problem and start being mindful and proactive about it.
JS: Bill, let’s talk about the production process. How did you approach the creation of this documentary? How would you describe it in terms of aesthetic, camera-work, sound, etc.? What was the overall “effect” that you were trying to produce in viewers?
BC: “Hear Me Now” is the first documentary that I have directed. I had worked on a number of documentaries with Zac Adams as a cinematographer and editor, so I was able to learn the general structure of doing a doc. Since day-one, I’ve wanted to approach “Hear Me Now” in a way that was stylistically different from documentaries I was accustomed to seeing. Being that my background has primarily been in narrative film and music videos, I wanted to take a more cinematic and stylized approach, using a wide range of color, music, rhythm, etc… I also wanted to craft something that would hold the attention of our target audience, young people. I often thought to myself, what would I have wanted to see during my darkest times at 13-years old? What would have held my attention? What would have given me a sense of hope? I wanted the film to be engaging both on a visual and an auditory level. This isn’t your granddaddy’s documentary.
JS: Steven, Outside of the November 3rd screening, when should readers excited to see Hear Me Now expect to see additional screenings or availability for the film for home viewing?
We are seeking to have the most impact possible, so we are in discussions about the many avenues available for the film to make its way into the world. We will announce any future screenings on social media, so follow Hear Me Now for the latest updates.
JS: Anything else?
BC: This film has been in the works for approximately four years, and we’re stoked to be able to share it with the world!