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“Complicity Comes in Many Forms”: Jay Rosenblatt on His Sundance Short About Bullying, When We Were Bullies

When We Were Bullies

Jay Rosenblatt’s latest inventive short When We Were Bullies, world premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, originated with a stranger than fiction coincidence surrounding a guy named Richard and the making of Rosenblatt’s 1994 short The Smell of Burning Ants — which itself had been influenced by another Richard, who is likewise the spark for this film. Fifty years ago the director and the former Richard, fifth-grade classmates, had been on the bullying side of a bizarre incident involving the latter Richard — a moment in time subsequently frozen in both their minds in similar, yet distinctly different, ways.

So to get at the heart of what truly happened at a Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn public school a half century ago, Rosenblatt travels back down memory lane, contacting classmates whose recollections of the collective attack range from the totally blank to the weirdly specific. (One former student even surprisingly recalls the teacher as being a bit of a bully. So of course Rosenblatt also reconnects with that now nonagenarian teacher.) As the meta, or perhaps circular, quest ensues revelations begin to build as do the questions. All of this culminates in Rosenblatt’s disturbing recognition that culpability lies equally with leaders and collaborators, a dangerous lesson we’ve all been painfully learning over the past four years, right through to this very day.

Just prior to the film’s Sundance debut Filmmaker reached out to the acclaimed San Francisco-based filmmaker, who’s directed over 30 films in 40 years, to find out all about both When We Were Bullies and “the bully in all of us.”

Filmmaker: I noticed the film’s synopsis includes the Einstein quote “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” So was the making of When We Were Bullies a particular sort of spiritual journey for you?

Rosenblatt: It actually was. The initial unbelievable “coincidence” with my previous film’s narrator, and the subsequent “coincidences” surrounding that film, led me to feel like there was some other force telling me to look into this fifth-grade incident, and to go deeper. In this new film I ask whether the universe is trying to tell me something, and this propels me on this journey to track down my fifth grade classmates (and teacher).

Filmmaker: I found the combination of the film’s whimsical animation and archival imagery along with the score immensely riveting. There’s a similar sensibility present in Dick Johnson Is Dead, directed by Kirsten Johnson, who was your DP on When We Were Bullies. So did the two of you trade specific ideas about applying playful artistry to a serious subject?

Rosenblatt: I am honored that you mention our films together because I absolutely loved Dick Johnson Is Dead when I saw it at Sundance last year. But actually, the fact that Dick Johnson Is Dead and my film have a similar sensibility has nothing to do with any trading of ideas. Maybe it has more to do with us being admirers of each other’s previous work and sensibilities.

We shot those interviews in When We Were Bullies in 2018, and I really knew hardly anything about the film Kirsten was working on. She told me the title and the logline, and it did sound intriguing, but I was really blown away by the originality, depth and playfulness.

Filmmaker: To be bullied is to be stripped of power. So did you ever worry that by using your bullied classmate Richard as a sort of nonconsensual muse  for not one but two films now — that you were in some way continuing to act as his perpetrator?

Rosenblatt: I think I actually address that in the film. It is the reason that I ultimately decide to hide his identity. I did get the sense that something was being reenacted in the process of making the film, and I felt bringing him into it might add to that. Ultimately, though, the journey I was on turned out to be less about him and more about the rest of the class and, of course, me. Even in the first film, it was less about him but more about myself being a collaborator. So I wouldn’t say he was a muse for either film — it was that act of violence that was the catalyst and the subject I wanted to delve into.

Filmmaker: We typically view sensitive artists like yourself as the bullied, not the bullies. This film completely upends that preconceived notion. You’ve even alluded to “the bully in all of us.” Can you delve into that a bit? I honestly don’t believe I’ve ever had a bully inside. (Then again I also don’t think I’ve ever felt a lack of individual agency, or a desire to go along with the crowd for that matter, in my life.)

Rosenblatt: I’m glad you have not experienced that, but I think you may be in the minority. I think one of the lessons I learned in the process of making this new film is that I had previously deluded myself into thinking that being a collaborator was somehow less onerous than being the bully. I had an internal hierarchy that made me feel less guilty. But really, it is just as bad. Without the complicity of others bullies have little power, and as we know, complicity comes in many forms.

Filmmaker: I actually watched your film the same week as the surreal insurrection at the US Capitol, instigated by the former bully-in-chief. The violence seemed to be carried out by a lethal combination of various groups, from dedicated anti-government zealots and white supremacists, all the way down to random MAGA clowns that just got swept up in the adrenaline high of a mob. So have you been thinking about the popular destructive appeal of bullies, especially during these recent years in which a raft of strongmen around the world have been duly elected to lead?

Rosenblatt: Yes, this is a particularly bullying moment in our collective lifetime. The making of this film, which took almost four years, has pretty much spanned the length of that nightmare administration. When I began it I wasn’t consciously thinking of any parallels, but there certainly is a timeliness to it — and, unfortunately, I think a timelessness too.

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