Film Director Gabrielle Blackwood: I asked child actors to act as bullies – and they found it hard to stop

Gabrielle Blackwood is in a tough part of town. On set at Kingston’s Haile Selassie Secondary School, she is directing “Bully” – a real tale narrated by former student D’andra. The taunting teenagers acting in Bully – who are recreating D’andra’s painful experiences – are convincing. Their aggression comes too easily.

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Bullying is a widespread problem in Jamaica. A recent study on bullying in schools – the first of its kind conducted in Jamaica, with UNICEF’s support – revealed that 6 in 10 students have been bullied at some point in their lives.

Nine in 10 students have seen a child being bullied at school.

The consequences can be devastating. For D’andra, years of bullying led her to self-harm. She has only recently stopped cutting herself to release the emotional pain she has experienced.

Gabrielle Blackwood, who is developing a reputation for approaching unusual subjects from ALS to grave robbing, readily took on the assignment from UNICEF to produce a short film about bullying for the #KeepChildrenSafe series.

She explains her personal interest in D’andra’s story and the creative process of producing the emotionally powerful short film:

I remember how well the extras took on the roles of bullies, so much so that the lead actress found it hard not to react naturally and it did take its toll on her. Even with myself or the whole crew yelling ‘CUT!’ repeatedly, the ‘bullies’ found it hard to stop. That stood out to me, so it was very easy to relate to the actual events we were trying to depict.

I wanted viewers to identify with D’andra or feel her pain and I figured the only way anyone could, was to see her as a human being; someone in need of love and acceptance, which I believe is essentially what we all want. We hear D’andra herself say it at the end of the film. I’m happy to see that people who’ve watched it feel it, feel for her and get it.

A bully comes in all forms. ‘Bully’ represents the main idea and theme of the film which not only describes the protagonist D’andra’s peers who mentally, emotionally and physically bullied her, but also describes her father who verbally and physically abused her.

I also hoped that through the football metaphor; the tension and anxiety that players and spectators feel during a penalty shoot out would make the viewing experience more tangible and relatable. This is still an ongoing journey and struggle for D’andra, so even though we see her take the penalty shot, we don’t know if she scored, but at least we know she took the shot. Likewise, I wanted for anyone in a similar position to know that they have to make a conscious decision to fight their reality. Whether they come out triumphant is left to be seen, but obviously something hoped for once they know they’ve given it their best shot!

Being proactive in educating parents, including mediation sessions in personal development classes at an early age, training students, teachers and guardians to see warning signs of bullying, take them seriously and speak out about them, are essential if we want to keep our children safe.

People lose their lives over this and some remain forever scarred. It was very important to show that bullying doesn’t necessarily manifest itself only physically, but also emotional bullying is one of the most damaging experiences anyone can go through. I wish I could have encompassed all of D’andra’s experiences in the film so people could see its far reaching effects, as it is no joke.

Hurt people also hurt people, sometimes the bullied then become the bullies, so we need to be careful of that cycle as well, and yes just treat every one like you want to be treated – like a human being!

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