Cannes’ award winning Mexican film highlights the pain of teen-girl bullying

Cynthia Arvide – WNN Features

Main character in film 'After Lucia', Alejandra, looks in mirror at injuries
Alejandra, played by actor Tessa Ia, looks at herself in a mirror after her hair has been forceably cut and she has received injuries to her face from an encounter with bullying in Michel Franco’s new film “After Lucía.” Image: Lucía Films/Filmadora Nacional/Lemon Films

(WNN) Mexico City, MEXICO, LATIN AMERICA: A 2012 film depiction of a teenage girl in Mexico City creates awareness about a very real problem in Mexico that comes with fatal consequences – youth bullying. Teenage bullying is a serious problem that can leave lasting scars say today’s experts.

In the film, 17-year-old Alejandra (played by Mexican actor Tessa Ia) is surrounded by her classmates. They won’t let her leave her chair as they bring her a birthday cake. For a second she thinks it’s sweet they remembered her birthday. Then they force her head down on the cake and make her eat it. She quickly realizes with searing intensity it’s not what she thought. We see her face change into utter revolt but they won’t let her go. She is forced into eating more of it while they laugh at her until she starts throwing up.

That was a scene from the recently released Mexican film, “After Lucía,” written and directed by Michel Franco. Alejandra has lost her mother in a car accident and moves with her father from their home in a small coastal town to Mexico’s urban capital. At her new school Alejandra meets ‘new friends’ and tries to fit in, but catastrophe strikes. She is invited to join a group of schoolmates for a weekend house party where she ends up drinking too much and having sex with a boy. Little does she know he records the encounter with his cellphone. A couple of days later the video has been shared online making Alejandra an endless target of her classmates’ harassment, mockery and aggression.

As humiliation and exclusion follows, this seventeen-year-old is in for a spiral of silent suffering and cruelty.

Franco’s award winning docudrama was chosen as this year’s winner of the Cannes Film Festival for ‘Un Certain Regard’. Literally translated as ‘A Certain Outlook’, this award was created to recognize young talent that encourages innovative and daring works. “After Lucía” was also tagged this year for nomination as one of the up-and-coming 2012 film selections for the, U.S. based, Academy Awards Oscars in Foreign Language Film.

Exploring the issues of bullying in a crude, yet honest and blatant way, “After Lucía” is the first time a film in Mexico has put a large spotlight on this form of harassment and violence. Using subtleties to pressure peers, bullying can be an all too familiar tactic for children who want to maintain power over others. And it can be dangerous.

“Bullying is a manifestation of aggression and youngsters who engage in bullying others are at a risk of becoming violent later,” says the American Medical Association.

“Bullying can involve direct attacks — hitting, threatening or intimidating, maliciously teasing and taunting, name-calling, making sexual remarks, sexual assault, and stealing or damaging belongings,” says JHSPH – Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Bullying can also involve the subtler, indirect attacks of rumor-mongering or encouraging others to snub someone. New technology, such as text messaging, instant messaging, social networking websites, and the easy filming and online posting of videos, has introduced a new form of intimidation — cyberbullying — which is widespread on the Internet,” continues JHSPH.

This type of bullying affects boys and girl teenagers today in schools around the globe. Characterized by “the repeated exposure of one person to physical and/or emotional aggression including teasing, name calling, mockery, threats, harassment, taunting, hazing, social exclusion or rumours,” as described by the WHO – World Health Organization, bullying has been rising dramatically in numerous countries, especially as a growing epidemic among youth.

Acts of bullying in Mexico have now reached high proportions outlines a study by the OECD – Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which shows that 61 percent of the students in middle school have already experienced an episode of violence since attending school. According to the OECD survey, out of 24 countries Mexico has the highest number of cases in the group occurring at the school level.

After asking 3,500 children, aged 9 to 17, if they had experienced or ever been a part of a bullying episode in their schools, surprising results surfaced. Through a 2009 local Mexico City Department of Education survey 92 percent of the children answered yes, they had played a role in being the aggressor in bullying.

“Research shows bullies tend to become more hostile over time. By the age of 24, two-thirds of boys who were bullies in elementary school had been convicted of three or more crimes, often violent ones, and had already done time in prison,” says social psychologist and author Dr. Elliot Aronson, who wrote the book “Nobody Left to Hate – Teaching Compassion After Columbine” following the Colombine High School killings.

The 2009 local survey also discovered that the main types of violence in Mexico’s schools are 30 percent verbal and 32 percent physical, followed by 13 percent which are predominately psychological, 10 percent sexual. At the time they also discovered that 5 percent of the bullying was cyberbullying, but this type of bullying is seeing a large increase in cases of harassment, especially harassment of women and girls.

But key to the issue is: do we know what actually causes bullying in teens? And how can we assess how much bullying is a product or symptom of gender-based violence?

Poster for the film 'After Lucia' by Director Michel Franco
Poster for the film ‘After Lucia’ by Director Michel Franco. Image: Lucía Films/Filmadora Nacional/Lemon Films

The office of Mexico’s Secretary of Education (SEDF – Secretaría de Educación del Distrito Federal), along with the private Catholic college The Universidad Intercontinental, explains how many different elements of bullying are present together in this form of gender-based violence: the perpetrator does it as a way to show his/her power; they tend to blame the victim for the situation, and people within the environment tend to distort their perception so they remain a silent accomplice, says the SEDF.

Based on discrimination of race, social status, sexual orientation, gender, disability, or being perceived by others as someone who is ‘weak or vulnerable’, the occurrence of bullying is an abusive act that can, and most often does, repeat itself in tortured layers over and over again. But the perpetuation of bullying can only continue if strict silence by the victim, the aggressor and the bystander are strictly upheld.

It’s Not Just Boys – Girls Are Mean Too

80% of disruptive behavior at schools come from boys, which reinforces the stereotype of men as more antisocial and violent, being what society knows as the ‘more common’ bully. But more girls today are increasingly becoming bullies. Girls usually target other girls for a specific variety of reasons: “to gain attention, respect or popularity; to punish or seek revenge for a broken friendship; for entertainment; to feel better about themselves; and because others are doing it too,” says the U.S. National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention.

In Franco’s film “After Lucía,” Alejandra becomes a victim of her ‘so-called’ girlfriends. After trying on dresses for a party, she is harshly questioned for spending ‘too-much’ time with one particular boy. As the girls show off with each other and threaten Alejandra with a pair of scissors, they over-power her and start to cut off her hair. Things get worse for her from that point on, but she won’t say a thing to her father or a teacher, which can cause a downward spiral of self-destructive behaviors.

Today it may be less easy to spot girl bullies. Why?

Because, rather than commit to the use physical violence, girls tend to bully through indirect or relational aggression (RA).

RA is a type of bullying that causes harm and damage through relationships and/or social status within groups, rather than through actual or threatened physical or verbal violence. Spreading gossip and rumors, exploiting personal secrets, writing or saying hurtful things, and ignoring, alienating, and isolating others are signature signs of girl-to-girl bullying.

“You’ll never know what being bullied feels like until you are,” says 11-year-old Demi in a global comment section on Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center, based in the U.S.

“No one should be forced to feel like that,” adds 16-year-old Meagan.

““Your friends know you and how to hurt you. They know what your real weaknesses are: They know exactly what to do to destroy someone’s self-worth. They try to destroy you from the inside… …Such pointed meanness can stay with you for your entire life. It
can define who you are,” says an 8th grade girl in author Rachel Simmons’ 2011 book, “Odd Girl Out – The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls.”

Many victims of bully violence, including girls, become perpetrators as well, hiding their own insecurities. Research from the University of Warwick and University of Hertfordshire in the U.K. has found that girls targeted by bullies in primary school are two and a half times more likely to remain victims than boys.

“…Even when the situation goes out of control,” says “After Lucía” film actor Tessa Ia, as she works to understand Aljeandra as person and a victim of bullying. “…I think what happens is that you become too ashamed to stand up and defend yourself or ask for help,” outlines Ia.

The consequences of bullying can be serious as they descend from low self-esteem, to depression and anxiety, to psychosomatic problems and even suicide. Currently 50 percent of youth suicides throughout Mexico are related to bullying, says Fundación en Movimiento, an organization dedicated to inform and bring awareness about bullying in Mexico.

“With the content of the film I was very secure. I knew what I was doing. I knew there were risks involved but I wanted to take those risks,” said film directer Michel Franco in an interview made with David Poland of DP/30 as part of a series Poland made with directors, actors and insiders during the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. “…All the films I like are like that. They get into ‘not such easy ground’. Because if not, maybe you’re not touching such interesting matters,” continued Franco.

“It was amazing. It’s hard for me to say, since it’s as if I’m showing off, but I was surprised to see people in long standing ovations. People crying – that was the best; watching people cry because then I was sure that they were touched and moved. I was sure the filming was going to be interesting because of the subject… I was aiming for it. But I wasn’t so sure it was going to be so moving; it was going to touch them (the audience) so deeply. But it did. So I cannot ask for more,” added Franco.

Today in Mexico there is not yet a legal framework to investigate and punish bullying nationwide. But 5 states out of 32 in the Mexican region do have some laws that promote “violent-free environments at schools.” In February 2012 Mexico City approved a specific anti-bullying law that acknowledges six types of bullying stating that school staff must now let the authorities know immediately if, and when, there is any case of bullying within their regional school.


Showing the searing humiliation of teen bullying in a high school in Mexico City, Mexico, teen girl Alejandra is trapped in a society that she cannot escape from in the award winning film “After Lucía,” directed by Michel Franco. “After Lucia” focuses on Alejandra as she simultaneously attempts to deal with both her mother’s death and a drunken mistake that renders her the target of mental and physical abuse from her classmates. Through its telling of Alejandra’s story, the film highlights the true effects of isolation and degradation that teenage bullying yields. ,” says the the Stockholm International Film Festival as they described the film they highlighted to their audience on November 14. This 1:35 minute October 23, 2012 video was recently released on Youtube by the Stockholm International Film Festival through a film trailer produced by Lucía Films/Filmadora Nacional/Lemon Films.


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WNN – Women News Network correspondent in Mexico City, Cynthia Arvide, is a freelance journalist who specializes in women issues, in addition to WNN some of her stories have been published in Marie Claire magazine, the Latin American edition. She also writes human interest stories, travel features and investigative reports about diverse cultural and social issues facing Mexico today.


Additional sources for this WNN article include Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center, OECD – Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Johns Hopkins University – Bloomberg School of Public Health, Stockholm International Film Festival, Nieto Editores – Revistas Medicas Mexicanas, WHO – World Health Organization, Cannes Film Festival, American Health Association, DP/30, Secretaría de Educación del Distrito Federal, University of Warwick and University of Hertfordshire.


©2012 WNN – Women News Network
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