WILLMAR — Minnesotans like to talk about their reputation for being Minnesota Nice, but a documentary film about bullying in the state’s schools takes the term and turns it on its head.
The film “Minnesota Nice?” explores the issue of bullying and teen suicide, offering a sometimes shocking, sometimes gut-wrenching view of what bullied children and teens experience.
More than 50 people attended the first of three showings of the film Thursday at Ridgewater College in Willmar. The film was one of the Multicultural Month events sponsored by the college.
Alec Fischer of Edina made the 45-minute film during his senior year in high school. He had been bullied since he was in elementary school, he said, and a friend’s suicide attempt spurred him into action.
Fischer is now a college freshman and continues to show the film and speak to any group that will listen.
The film opens with cell phone videos of bullying and news reports of suicides blamed on bullying.
The audience grew hushed as the screen displayed photos of teens who had killed themselves. Few eyes were dry as Brittany Ehmke described the bullying of her younger sister Rachel, 13, who killed herself on April 29, 2012, after months of bullying in the Kasson-Mantorville School District.
Also in the film are students reading poems about being different and describing depression fed by bullying. In one girl’s poem was this line: “Stares, snickers and comments, but not to my face.”
One boy said, “You’re not the words they say you are; you can’t let that get to you, or it will destroy you.”
Students with eating disorders, autism and physical disabilities spoke in the film, as well as students who were bullied because of their weight, race or sexual orientation.
Different segments of the film were separated by students saying, “I want to know how it feels,” followed by their wishes to be in a school where everyone is treated equally, or where everyone can feel safe.
The film makes the point that Minnesota has the shortest and weakest anti-bullying law in the country, 37 words long with no definition of bullying and no clear direction for school districts on how it should be handled.
After the film, Fischer said he presents the film and many middle schools and high schools. He tells students “don’t be afraid” to intervene when a student is being bullied.
When a person in the audience thanked him “for being that voice,” he said he’d never envisioned himself in that role.
“The message I’m trying to send is it’s not as hard as they think it is,” he said. If one person steps up, others might, too, he added.
Fischer urged his audience to think about all kinds of bullying. Much attention is on the bullying of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, and that’s good, he said, but people are bullied for many other reasons, which his film points out.
He pointed to the huge fight at Minneapolis South High School a week ago, which was attributed to growing racial tensions.
Fischer said he hasn’t presented to elementary students yet, and sometimes has trouble going into middle schools because of some of the foul language in the cell phone videos that open his film.
“Kids are not new to the language,” he said.
Ridgewater students who watched the film were impressed.
“Fabulous,” said Jessica Heida of Raymond. “Heartbreaking” was the assessment from Angie Tilden of Montevideo. Both are medical assistant students.
“He should be proud of himself,” Heida said. “It hit home, because I have an 11-year-old daughter.” People like to think it doesn’t happen in small towns, she added, but it does.
“I experienced bullying years ago, but I think it’s different now,” Tilden said.