By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
Rosenblatt’s documentary is a frank self-assessment that resituates an otherwise easily forgotten misstep of youth in the context of the knowledge and experience of adulthood…. [while] When We Were Bullies strips away the soft surfaces of nostalgia to remind us with a near visceral intensity of the vicious, uncompromising and often confusing world of childhood itself.”
There’s a vision of childhood often depicted on screen that is so drenched with soft-focus pastel hues that to make out any concrete shape can be a strain on the eye. Oh childhood! That near-mystical fortress of warm, cushiony memories so far from the harsh reality of adulthood! We may admit that things sometimes can get a little fraught through this process of the Wonder Years-ification of our collective pasts at times, sure, but it’s all safely framed in the snuggly glow of nostalgia, marked by a yearning for what we are consistently reminded are supposedly ‘simpler times’.
We swallow these depictions of childhood en masse largely because we simply want to believe them, not because they are necessarily true. Whether as victim, assailant, or both, when forced to admit it most of us surely will acknowledge that bullying is a fairly ubiquitous childhood phenomenon, one that often manifests in reality well beyond the pedestrian ‘social issue of the week’ framework of the less ambitious examples of the sitcom of made-for-tv movie.
In Laura Wandel’s devastating film Playground, the English-language title alone sets the scene for this particular battleground, but it is the original French title – Un Monde (“a world”) – provides a much more explicit picture of what is at stake here for the film’s protagonist, seven-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) as she negotiates both her own and her brother Abel’s (Gunter Duret) relationship to bullying. When you are a kid, the playground is the world; we see Nora’s father drop her and her brother off and pick them up, we see her in class and the lunch room and the bathroom, but it is really the playground itself – as the film’s title indicates – where the bulk of the film’s dramatic action takes place. Unsupervised and left to their own devices, it is here that the complex politics of childhood as far from the rosy glow adults so often retrospectively apply to this period of life play out in vicious, heart wrenching detail.
Shot with a focus solely on Nora and that of her peers, the camera frequently shoots adults so their bodies only partially fit in the frame, and sometimes not at all, while their disembodied voices drift into the shot while they are positioned off-camera. In Wandel’s film, adults quite literally don’t fit, the effect allowing not just a wholly immersive experience when it comes to our connection to our small, suffering Nora and her perspective, but also amplifying the physical and emotional distance between often well-meaning adults and the world of children themselves. Nora struggles with school at first, crying when she leaves her beloved father, but she at first gets by – she makes some tentative social connections, and there are kids to play with. But for Abel, she soon discovers, life on the playground is not so clear cut; disoriented by the discovery he is being bullied and confused by his reaction to it, Nora struggles to understand the rules of the playground, and where potential power lies. When things escalate with Abel, she must deal with becoming a social pariah herself, as well as coming to grips with the changes in her brother.
A powerful, emotionally compelling film, Playground captures with enormous force the very velocity with which children lose empathy when thrown into the jungle of the playground. Humiliation is weaponized, an everyday torture device that even in the tiniest of hands inflicts almost incomprehensible damage, be it physical or emotional. Moving from the world of fictional feature films to short documentary, Jay Rosenblatt’s Oscar-nominated When We Were Bullies (recently acquired by HBO Films) is a gripping bookend to Playground, shifting its gaze as it does to the adult filmmaker himself who is forced to come to terms with the bullying of a fellow classmate 25 years earlier. The story of what leads Rosenblatt to this point is a remarkable one. While making his 1994 documentary short The Smell of Burning Ants, a flash of a moment in old archival footage reminded him of an incident from the 5th grade, and in his search for a narrator for the film he reunited with a classmate from the very same school he went to when this particular event took place. It was, they discovered, a memory they shared – a child called Richard was turned on by the entire class after school one day, physically circling him and abusing him, until their teacher, Mrs Blomberg, broke things up.
Although the bullied child himself – now an adult – is conspicuously absent from the film for reasons Rosenblatt goes at lengths to explain, as the very title When We Were Bullies indicates, the film is less concerned with the experience of being bullied than it is focusing on the psychology and motives of the bullies themselves. Researching the film, Rosenblatt reunites with many of his ex-classmates who similarly recall the incident and the bullied child, struggling in a variety of ways to grasp as adults their behaviour as children. The film is very much a journey, where adults reflect on the hierarchies and humiliations of childhood as they struggle to make sense of their own culpability and status as abusers.
Rosenblatt’s documentary is a frank self-assessment that resituates an otherwise easily forgotten misstep of youth in the context of the knowledge and experience of adulthood. Why did we punch down on someone who was clearly so vulnerable, the director and his peers ask themselves in retrospect. One reconsiders the memory in the light of being a parent themselves now, clearly mortified and ashamed. But Richard’s absence makes this a complicated film: is the film merely a continuation of the ‘ganging up’? Rosenblatt himself recognizes this potential feedback loop, and talks about the film itself almost reenacting the original abuse. An honest, unflinching confession as much as a probing documentary that seeks to answer questions for which there may never be answers, when seen through the context of Playground in particular, When We Were Bullies strips away the soft surfaces of nostalgia to remind us with a near visceral intensity of the vicious, uncompromising and often confusing world of childhood itself.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who frequently contributes to Fangoria and has published widely on cult, horror and exploitation film including The Giallo Canvas: Art, Excess and Horror Cinema (McFarland, 2021), Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011) and the 2021 updated second edition of the same name, Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018), and two Bram Stoker Award nominated books, Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019) and 1000 Women in Horror (BearManor Media, 2020). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), Wonderland (Thames & Hudson, 2018) on Alice in Wonderland in film, co-edited with Emma McRae, and Strickland: The Analogues of Peter Strickland (2020) and Cattet & Forzani: The Strange Films of Cattet & Forzani (2018), both co-edited with John Edmond and published by the Queensland Film Festival. Alexandra is on the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.