Bullying is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, sometimes almost to the point that it recedes into the background—more white noise of a 24 hour news cycle. But the documentary “A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story” will bring bullying back into the proper perspective (as if one were needed) because it boils the topic down to the most important aspect: the human element.
Directed by Sara Bordo, “A Brave Heart” is not so much an examination of bullying as it is the battle cry of a determined woman who has already won a slew of victories just by getting on stage and delivering her message. Lizzie Velasquez, the woman at the heart of this film, was born with a medical condition (as yet unnamed by doctors) that makes it nearly impossible for her to put on weight. This condition has also led to myriad medical problems for Velasquez, who has been in and out of the hospital since she was born.
Two stories run parallel in “A Brave Heart.” One is Velasquez’s personal journey, as she and her family come to terms with her medical issues and she tries to lead as normal a life as possible. You can see the love in the face of her parents, and also their pain as they recall what it was like when they felt like they had to explain their daughter’s appearance to classmates.
The other is Velasquez’s rise to the national and international stage as a leader against bullying, as she uses technology and her own warm—yet quite forceful—personality to inspire others. She becomes a rallying figure, taking to the Internet with her own YouTube channel as well as making appearances throughout the world.
As the documentary form of filmmaking has changed and evolved through the years, the one thing that makes it unique, and gives it power, is that if offers us real voices. And Bordo has certainly tapped into that with Velasquez. Bordo mixes in present day interviews of Velasquez, her parents, siblings, and other members of her family, with home movie footage; this is then juxtaposed with the images of Velasquez on the world stage: here she is giving a TED Talk; there she is being surrounded by fans in a foreign airport requesting autographs.
The thing that makes Velasquez such an effective voice against bullying—technology, namely the Internet—is also the thing that prodded her into action in the first place. She came across a YouTube video with the title of “The World’s Ugliest Woman.” Against her better judgment, she clicked on it, and was heartbroken to see that it was her. And almost worse than that, the stinging comments that viewers left made her realize that people can be just as cruel anonymously as they could to her face.
Bordo sees all of this and deftly weaves it together, so we get a sense of Velasquez the person and Velasquez the anti-bullying icon. There are powerful segments, such as the opening interview of Velasquez at her former elementary school. She tearfully recalls how she would try to hide from the other students and her frustrations when her medical problems would hold her back and she would feel different—even more so.
There are also light-hearted segments, as we get to see Velasquez interact with her family, participate in school functions, and the many videos she posts on the Internet—some are life affirming messages and some are recipes to pick you up after a bad day.
And then most importantly, are those segments where Velasquez tells her story to audiences around the world. She travels not just in hopes of stamping out bullying and the anonymous hate speech that is now so easy to spread through the touch of a button, but also in hopes that people will also just be kinder to each other.
“A Brave Heart” is an effective piece of filmmaking that takes a topic that while we know is important, has become another “issue” that doesn’t always receive our full attention. And sometimes to get that attention back, you have to put a human face on it.