REVIEW: When We Were Bullies [2021]

Rating: 9 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 36 minutes
    Release Date: 2021 (USA)
    Director(s): Jay Rosenblatt
    Writer(s): Jay Rosenblatt

And I participated.

It couldn’t have played out better that the person to give writer/director Jay Rosenblatt the crucial perspective that he remembers the bullying incident at the center of his short documentary When We Were Bullies because of his complicity rather than the incident’s severity was his now ninety-two-year-old fifth grade teacher. How perfect is that? While you could place partial blame on her shoulders for punishing the whole class because of one student’s actions and naming him as the reason, her labeling them “animals” during their next class undoubtably proves a key component to why that complicity hurts so much. Maybe Jay didn’t remember the exact word she used until fellow classmate Richard J. Silberg shared his version of events, but its impact certainly stuck with him.

Just because it remanifests itself through a series of coincidences doesn’t mean the event wasn’t profoundly influential towards who he’s become in the decades since either. A simple three-frame scene in an old educational film cannot catalyze this reaction if it hadn’t. One light punch from a bystander while two boys start fighting is enough to get those feelings of guilt and disgust flooding back into his consciousness? Yes. Because it delivers the toxic masculinity of boys raised to be “men,” the survival instinct to push someone else through the gauntlet of adolescent abuse to save yourself, and the false sense of pride and loyalty that comes with mob behavior. These scars put Jay on a path of reckoning and he stepped forward with open heart and mind.

Part essay film autobiography and part entertaining anecdote, Rosenblatt allows the words and reminiscences speak for themselves against contextually relevant stock footage and Jeremy Rourke’s inventive animations using cutout portraits of the fifth-grade students in question. Those faces circle around their blurred-out victim (making this about “Dick” would be a disservice to them recognizing their actions are what mattered) while the school-yard background separates into multiple pieces or crumples up to lead us to the latest visual segue. Rosenblatt plays with time to keep us engaged (his old teacher isn’t wrong when saying this film could be tedious if presented wrong), letting revelations serve as cliffhangers with the propulsive force necessary to learn more. Some pay-off narratively. Some pay-off thematically. Some are just plain weird (Elementary school reunions?).

It’s a journey of the soul with regrets laid bare that never comes off as fake via over-zealous sentimentality. Jay reconnects with old classmates to talk about the incident and a few of them describe other transgressions at “Dick’s” expense—the sort that can make remorse difficult to fully buy into. Alongside those moments is also plenty of evidence of real contrition with some realizing in hindsight just how damaging their actions could have been. Does knowing “Dick” is now a successful television producer help it all go down easier? Definitely. Yet that knowledge may also allow Jay to dig further and demand honesty rather than try glossing over intent. This is an important topic deserving that truth. Hopefully the humor helps us absorb it to spark change.

courtesy of ShortsTV

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