94th Academy Awards Nominee 2022
Best Documentary Short Subject
WHEN WE WERE BULLIES
Originally Published during Sundance 2021
WHEN WE WERE BULLIES begins with a mind boggling “coincidence” from 25 years ago which ultimately leads the filmmaker to track down his 5th grade class (and 5th grade teacher) to see what they remember of a bullying incident from 50 years ago. In a playful yet poignant way he begins to understand his complicity and the bully in all of us.
Hi Jay thank you for talking to The New Current, how have you been holding up during these very strange times?
Thankfully I am well though I can’t wait to get to some sense of normalcy back.
Has this time offered you any new creative inspiration?
Actually the time allowed me to finish this film and to work on another project that I have been meaning to get to for several years.
Congratulations on having When We Were Bullies selected in the Documentary Shorts Section at Sundance 2021, what does it mean to be part of such an amazing line up fo short films?
Sundance is a wonderful launch for my film. I couldn’t have hoped for anything better, except I so wish it was a live premiere rather than virtual but that’s life.
You are no stranger to Sundance, do you remember what your first time at the festival was like?
Yes. It was in 1991 and I screened a film called SHORT OF BREATH. It played in front of Yvonne Rainer’s PRIVILEGE. Sundance was so much different then. It was much smaller and more intimate.
What was the inspiration behind When We Were Bullies?
The inspiration was the unbelievable coincidence that happened when making a previous film called THE SMELL OF BURNING ANTS, which also happened to screen at Sundance in 1994. This coincidence is described in the new film and was the point of departure for everything that followed.
Did you have any apprehensions about tracking down your fellow classmates from 5th Grade?
I guess there was some apprehension. I didn’t know how many classmates I could find and I wasn’t sure they would remember the incident and/or be willing to talk about it if they did. It turns out that everyone was very open and willing to contribute.
"As long as I had the passion for the general idea I knew I’d come up with something if I kept at it."
How cathartic was it for you to look back at this period in your life?
It was very cathartic. More than I would have imagined. I really enjoyed all my conversations with my 5th grade classmates. I don’t do Facebook so I don’t experience those kind of connections that many people seem to have. People remembered things about me that I thought I had hidden.
What would you say was the most valuable lesson you have taken from your experience making When We Were Bullies?
I used to believe that being a “collaborator” was somehow less egregious than being the bully or ringleader but I now see it as just as bad. I think I was holding it that way to not feel as guilty or ashamed.
Is there anything you would say to the younger you from this time?
I wish you had the courage and wherewithal to say “stop” when you could have. That said, I forgive you.
Should filmmakers continue to push the boundaries of the films/stories they want to tell?
Absolutely! Especially in the telling of the story. That is where I get the “juice” in the creative process.
What is it about documentary filmmaking that interests you so much?
I really believe that truth can be stranger than fiction. I think pushing the boundaries of documentary filmmaking is really exciting and liberating.
How much has your approach to your films and the stories you tell changed since your started out?
When I was in film school I thought I was going to make narrative films and I thought I would always need a script first. I eventually realised that the kind of filmmaking I was drawn to was editing intensive and that was where the creation really took place. So I started to collect materials to use and figure it out as I was going. As long as I had the passion for the general idea I knew I’d come up with something if I kept at it. And I also decided that I wouldn’t finish a project until I was completely satisfied.
Do you have any advice you would offer a fellow filmmaker?
I think the answer right above is my advice. To reiterate: only make films you are passionate about and don’t give up.
And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from When We Were Bullies?
Ideally my film will invite and hopefully move viewers to think about their own bullying stories, whether they were bullies, collaborators or victims. Many of us have been all three…