Oscar-nominated ‘When We Were Bullies’ looks back in shame on 1965 schoolyard attack

In short documentary, filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt interviews his 5th grade classmates and teacher as part of quest to come to terms with his own complicity in bullying another boy

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Image from 'When We Were Bullies,' a short documentary by Jay Rosenblatt. (Screenshot of HBO trailer)
    Image from 'When We Were Bullies,' a short documentary by Jay Rosenblatt. (Screenshot of HBO trailer)
  • Filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt climbing over the gate at PS 194 in Brooklyn, NY, where he was a student in the 1960s. (Courtesy of HBO)
    Filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt climbing over the gate at PS 194 in Brooklyn, NY, where he was a student in the 1960s. (Courtesy of HBO)
  • Image from 'When We Were Bullies,' a short documentary by Jay Rosenblatt. (Courtesy of HBO)
    Image from 'When We Were Bullies,' a short documentary by Jay Rosenblatt. (Courtesy of HBO)
  • Filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt (left) with childhood classmate Richard J. Silberg in 'When We Were Bullies.' (Courtesy of HBO)
    Filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt (left) with childhood classmate Richard J. Silberg in 'When We Were Bullies.' (Courtesy of HBO)

Jay Rosenblatt’s Academy Award-nominated short documentary begins with the filmmaker and his friend Richard J. Silberg, climbing over the fence of PS 194 in Brooklyn, New York.

Now in their 60s, the two struggle over the locked gate to return to the scene of an incident that occurred in the school’s yard in 1965, when they were in the 5th grade. It was a bullying incident, the memory of which filmmaker Rosenblatt had suppressed for many years. But once he recalled it, he could not get it out of his mind.

In “When We Were Bullies,” now available for viewing on HBO and the HBO Max streaming platform, Rosenblatt reflects on how a string of coincidences over the last two decades made him eventually want to try to piece together exactly what happened in that schoolyard one Friday afternoon in 1965.

“I felt something propelling me from outside to make the film. It was as if these synchronicities were the universe’s way of telling me something,” Rosenblatt told The Times of Israel in an interview from his home in San Francisco.

He knew that he was complicit in some way in the whole class encircling, taunting — and perhaps physically attacking — a boy named Richard (unfortunately dubbed Dick by the teachers to differentiate him from the other three Richards in the grade). The specifics, however, were hidden somewhere deep in the recesses of Rosenblatt’s memory.

Rosenblatt looked up every single person who was in his 5th-grade class (except for the victim) to ask them what they remembered. His classmates happened to be predominantly Jewish, while the school overall reflected the multi-ethnic Jewish, Italian and Irish demographics of the Gerritsen Beach neighborhood.

Filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt climbing over the gate at PS 194 in Brooklyn, NY, where he was a student in the 1960s. (Courtesy of HBO)

In an effective creative choice by the filmmaker, we hear the classmates’ adult voices, but only see their childhood faces from the annual class photo.

Most of them did not have significant — if any — recollections of the bullying incident. But many did remember Dick as being very intelligent, but socially awkward and annoying.

As children, they may have used this as an excuse to gang up on Dick. However, according to Rosenblatt, they all in retrospect had regret for how their classmate was treated.

Dr. Rona Novick, Dean, Azrieli Graduate School at Yeshiva University. (Courtesy)

This adult regret is quite normal, according to Dr. Rona Novick, dean of the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University. Novick is also a clinical psychologist with expertise in bullying prevention.

“In adulthood, many of us can reflect on our childhood, including our being complicit or silent when bullying happened. It requires a level of maturity to look at our own actions,” Novick said.

“For younger people, the cognitive dissonance is often too much to overcome. It is hard for preteens and teens to think of themselves a good person and at the same time deal with the fact that they did something that was not good,” she said.

Roy Aldor, director of a large child and family outpatient mental health clinic in Jerusalem, agreed.

“It is atypical that a young perpetrator of bullying would remember so clearly. Incidents are usually put away in repressed memories as a defense mechanism,” Aldor said.

“Usually it is the victim — of repetitive bullying in particular — who remembers it and relives the trauma,” he said.

Filmmaker Rosenblatt managed to interview his 5th-grade teacher Mrs. Bromberg shortly before she died. (He discovered she was still alive at the time, and how to find her, due to yet another fortuitous coincidence.)

Despite classmate Silberg’s recollection that Mrs. Bromberg angrily called the class “animals” and gave them a tongue lashing, the teacher herself did not remember the event. To her, it was just another instance of students behaving badly over her long career in education.

In her on-camera conversation with Rosenblatt, she does comment on the fact that kids seem to be hardwired to pick up on vulnerability in other kids.

“Kids are tuned into that in the oddest way. They can pick up something that the adults can’t see. It’s a sixth sense or something,” Mrs. Bromberg remarks.

Filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt’s 5th-grade photo. (Courtesy of HBO)

According to Yeshiva University’s Novick, not all vulnerable youth automatically become the victims of bullying, which is a deliberate abuse of power to cause harm — physical or otherwise — usually done in a repeated way. Bullies pick on those who produce a response or reaction. If a victim shows that a bully’s attempts to intimidate them aren’t working, the bully generally backs off.

Novick said that five decades ago, it was already known that bullying is rarely accomplished privately. There are always bystanders, and therefore the bullying must be addressed by teachers and other responsible adults with the entire group, and not just with the dyad of perpetrator and victim. This is especially important today as social media has led to pervasive and devastating cyberbullying, which Novick characterized as “bullying on steroids.”

According to Novick, it has only more recently been understood that bullying prevention and intervention is essential — and works. Educational settings need to be focusing on inclusion, acceptance, and teaching empathy every single day, from kindergarten through to 12th grade, Novick said.

In an example that supports Novick’s emphasis on social-emotional education, psychologist Aldor shared that a former classmate from his 5th-grade class contacted him many decades later to thank him for defending her in front of the class. He didn’t remember the specific incident, but he did remember the empathy he had toward the girl, who had trouble fitting in.

“How we deal with bullying sends a message to victims, bullies and bystanders. With rates of anxiety, depression and suicide high among bullying victims, we can’t afford to have adults just standing by,” she said.

Filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt. (Ewelina Kaminska)

Bullying can also cause mental distress among bystanders.

One would think that Rosenblatt would have reached out to Dick, the victim of the bullying incident in the PS 194 schoolyard. Although he initially thought about doing it, he decided in the end it wasn’t the right move to make.

“Dick is not the focal point of the film. Keeping Dick out of it and not arriving at any sense of closure has led to the film being more universal,” Rosenblatt said.

He said this was evident from the outpouring of responses he has received from viewers.

“I thought the film would strike a chord, but not necessarily to the extent it has. I didn’t expect it would touch people to the point that they would share with me in emails their own stories of bullying or being bullied, or of their children’s experiences with bullying,” Rosenblatt said.

It’s clear that Rosenblatt made “When We Were Bullies” as a means of exploring and atoning for whatever role he had in tormenting Dick that afternoon in 1965.

The film ends with Rosenblatt reading a letter of apology he wrote to Dick. As someone who experienced great pain in his life even as a child, Rosenblatt feels terrible for possibly having caused pain to his classmate.

“In the letter, I say, ‘I am sorry,’ not ‘we are sorry.’ I felt this was the strongest way to own it, whatever role I played in the incident,” the filmmaker said.

These words of contrition live only within the film. Rosenblatt never actually sent the letter to Dick. He hopes his former classmate hears of the film and watches it.

“I know it would be a healing moment for me if I received an apology from someone who bullied me,” Rosenblatt said.

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