Garnering accolades at festivals across North America, Matthew Johnson’s The Dirties tackles the now unfortunately trendy topic of bullying. The film attempts to shed a non-judgmental light on what drives the bullied to their breaking point, pushing them into the territory of infamous mass murderers. What Johnson’s managed to create is a relatable portrayal of high school kids being high school kids. That is, until they aren’t.
The goal of the film was to show that, even in the most terrible circumstances, these kids are just going through the high school experience. Johnson, and co-writer/producer Evan Morgan, wanted to create a film that represented the truth behind these troubled teens. Their inspiration for the tone of the film came from the home videos of Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and Seung Hui-Cho who was responsible for the Virginia Tech shootings. “What we found from looking at all of their footage was that, essentially, when you just look at videos that they were making of themselves, they’re really funny. And what they’re trying to do is make one another laugh. It’s a weird human portrait of what these guys are.”
The film is surprisingly funny nearly from beginning to end. The humour is natural, and impressively so given that all but one line in the film was improvised. The concern with having any comedy in a film that addresses such a tragic topic is that it will overshadow or demean the end message. Owen Williams, who plays Owen in the film, explains, “It’s not as though the movie was supposed to be a comedy in order to mimic the comedy in those videos. It’s more of a naturalism, and being real people, which obviously includes humour.”
“It’s not a movie about people who just woke up in the morning and put on black makeup and worship the devil,” he continues. “It’s real kids.” Emphasizing the realism of their characters, Johnson and Williams go on to explain that they drew from a well of not only their own personal experience with bullying, but the experiences of the entire writing and production team as well. Though they weren’t seeking “a kind of catharsis,” as Johnson puts it, “we wanted to show bullying in a way that we knew it to be true and that we hadn’t seen before.”
The film addresses one of the more difficult aspects of bullying in a way that might cause some backlash: the impotence of teaching staff. Ultimately, teachers can’t really do much when it comes to bullying. Much of the time they don’t see it, as kids are very careful about getting caught. Worse still, kids are reluctant to come forward, for fear of making their torment worse. Getting a teacher involved will ensure that more often than not.
With a series of real interviews starting the film, teachers from local Toronto high schools were asked what they would encourage a student to do if they were a victim of bullying. The answers are textbook, generally urging students to seek solace and support from teaching staff. A teacher in his daily life, Williams sheds some light on the subject. “We talk a lot in schools about how we all know that bullying is a problem, and we all know that kids pick on each other, and everybody has a responsibility to do something about it.
“And yet,” he continues, “as a teacher, I don’t see it, ever. Two or three times I’ve addressed overt kids being mean to one another. As a teacher I do find that troubling, because, anything to do with a movie and art aside, I know that there are kids who are unhappy, and I wish I could help.
“It’s ridiculous to think that you can go to a teacher to get help,” he adds, honestly. “We pay lip service to it a lot, but I don’t really know what I could do for these kids. Even if they did come to me and say they’re being bullied, I don’t know what I could do. I could try to do something about it, but I think I’d just wind up making it worse. I find it very disempowering. It’s very troubling to think about.”
“But certainly we don’t know the answers to it,” Matt interjects. “And I think that’s why we want to make a movie about it. Because, clearly, we didn’t know how to resolve these issues, and the last thing the film is trying to present are solutions.”
While they’re not trying to play heroes in the battle against bullying, Johnson, Williams, Morgan, and fellow producers and writers Matthew Miller and Josh Boles do hope to shine the spotlight on existing issues. Acknowledging the benefits of society’s new hyper-awareness of bullying, there’s now a great deal of stigma attached to the term “bullying.” “As there should be,” says Williams. “You can shame someone with the tag of ‘bully’. But I don’t know that that changes behaviour.”
“We have an awareness of it,” Williams continues, “but we haven’t figured out how to fix it. We’re just calling it names. And the goal in this film is partly to show that just labeling the problem and not doing anything about it does nothing.
“Part of what [The Dirties] is trying to do is flip things on its head. The people who committed the shooting are shown as the victims, and the idea that there is that victim and victimizer – it’s not so easy to see the difference between the two. And just trying to identify who’s guilty doesn’t actually fix what’s occurring.
“It’s a new name on something,” Williams concludes. “It’s like the rebranding of bullying.”