“Our approach is controversial,” Ian Thorpe admits, “but will only be conducted under tight supervision.”
I’m frequently uneasy about hidden cameras by television to be provocative, but ABC’s two part special Bullied isn’t just careful in its use of footage, it actually uses it to a constructive outcome.
The sum total is raw, powerful and emotional.
Bullied profiles 2 Queensland students, 1 in each episode, who responded to an outcall from producers. With the -eventual- co-operation of the Queensland Education Department, it is the only state in which this Keo Films/ Lune Media production could take place.
Ian Thorpe meets with 14 year old Kelsey (surname withheld) after his mother contacted producers. Kelsey, who lives with father and siblings, has been subjected to bullying and abuse at school for years, largely because he has long hair.
Kelsey’s father knows it has been traumatic, and even removed his son from school for a year to go travelling. But the family is at a loss as to how they can put an end to Kelsey’s torment.
“We can’t live like this,” says his father, Rick.
Enter Bullied, which offers to put hidden cameras into a backpack for Kelsey to wear to gain an insight into his abuse, and to do something about it. Initially, this is done without the consent of the (unnamed) high school.
“This not about blame. No-one will be singled out,” assures Thorpe.
“I have mixed feeling about this. I don’t want Casey to be bullied but this is the only way we can show what he’s been up against for years.”
The plan is to show the footage to school principals and even to other students.
The footage is pixellated, disguises teen voices, and avoids identification. But it is brutal.
Kelsey is the target of name calling, threats, homophobic slurs, violence and death wishes. Subjected to such a tirade he has a tendency to being argumentative and fighting back. In the eyes of the school this effectively marks him as a difficult student. What a horrendous cycle for one so young.
Kelsey’s father is drawn to tears seeing what his son has endured.
“I’ve never seen dad so upset,” Kelsey admits.
Armed with powerful evidence, Thorpe then phones the school principal, and Qld Education Department, asking for meetings.
“The school might feel they have been spied on,” Thorpe concedes, “But there is not other way to show it from Kelsey’s viewpoint.”
Producers allow us into the real-world experience of this, as if it were from a Louis Theroux documentary.
“I’m filming for the ABC…. Yes, I am that Ian Thorpe,” he tells the person on the other end of the phone.
Later the doco will show a group session where fellow students view the footage, joined by Prof Marilyn Campbell from QUT.
“I didn’t know it was that bad,” says one shocked student.
“The things I could have done before, I’m really sorry I didn’t do more,” another shares.
“You’re classified as not cool if you don’t bully.”
This is powerful stuff but it does create a support network for Kelsey to great effect.
With such heavy material this could have easily been a draining experience for the viewer, but producers and Thorpe put their networks to great effect, by lifting everybody’s spirits with another famous face paying the students a visit. It’s like a reward for their painful efforts. This production would be nothing without its brave participants, and Kelsey is to be applauded.
Ian Thorpe shows a good balance of empathy and storytelling in the first of the two episodes (a second will feature 16 year old Chloe, who has a genetic disorder). If anything is lacking it is arguably Thorpe himself sharing his own experiences of bullying, particularly those surrounding his sexual identity and depression. But we are light years in front of Undercover Angels for those with long memories….
It’s impossible not to think that Bullied has helped avoid a calamity for Kesley and his family. Sometimes even TV can use its powers for good instead of evil.
Bullied airs 8:30pm Tuesday on ABC.
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Young people and their parents can also turn to ReachOut.com