Jay Rosenblatt is the director of the documentary short "When We Were Bullies," which has been nominated for an Academy Award.
Jay Rosenblatt is the director of the documentary short "When We Were Bullies," which has been nominated for an Academy Award.

S.F. filmmaker’s documentary on bullying incident nominated for Oscar

In the mid-1960s, Jay Rosenblatt and several of his fifth-grade classmates at Brooklyn’s P.S. 194 bullied a socially awkward peer named Dick. One day on the playground, they jumped and spat on him for talking in class and preventing an earlier dismissal, or so the rumor went. Their teacher later castigated the offending students, calling them “animals.”

Rosenblatt quickly forgot about the incident, grew up and moved to San Francisco to become a filmmaker. But an uncomfortable memory of that day resurfaced three decades later while he was working on a project about the travails of boyhood. After reconnecting with one of his classmates who remembered that day with Dick, Rosenblatt decided to track down others and make a documentary to try to understand what happened — and to process his own guilt over his involvement.

That film, “When We Were Bullies,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year and was nominated earlier this month for an Oscar in the documentary short category. It can be seen beginning Feb. 25 as part of the Oscar-nominated short films programs at the Roxie in San Francisco and the Rafael in San Rafael.

“I felt very relieved,” Rosenblatt told J. about the moment he learned of the nomination, his first. “In some ways it felt like a culmination of a career of making shorts for the past 40 years.“ He described his campaign for the Oscars as “DIY,” that is, sans a budget and based entirely on word of mouth.

“When We Were Bullies” qualified for the Academy Awards by winning the grand jury award in its category at the Florida Film Festival. It is the only nominated short that has not yet been picked up by a distributor. “I’m hoping it sells now so I can make back some of the money I put into it,” Rosenblatt said.

During his career, Rosenblatt has made more than 30 films, most of them short documentaries. (He also works as the program director for the Jewish Film Institute, which puts on the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and WinterFest, which runs Feb. 26 to March 6 this year.) “I would say a large percentage of my films are what I call collage essays,” he said. “I use a lot of archival footage and found footage.” Why shorts? “Since my films aren’t commissioned, I don’t have restrictions on length,” he explained. “They’re organic, and whatever they come out to be, that’s the length that they are.”

In “When We Were Bullies,” which is 35 minutes long, Rosenblatt interviews his former classmates about their memories of Dick and the incident in question. Several express regret over how they behaved. “It was a different time, a different era,” one man says. “I’d apologize, and I have a lot more compassion for him.”

Rosenblatt also visits the school and meets with his fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Bromberg, who is 92 at the time of filming and living in a senior residence in the Bronx. She provides some comic relief, telling Rosenblatt politely that she doesn’t think anyone will want to watch a film about bullying. “It could be possibly very tedious,” she says.

One of the more unique aspects of “When We Were Bullies” is its use of stop-motion animation, executed by Jeremy Rourke, in which Rosenblatt’s classmates are represented by cutouts from their fifth-grade class photo that move around the screen. Throughout the film, Dick’s name is bleeped and his photo is blurred.(Readers should watch the film to learn if Rosenblatt managed to get Dick to participate.)

“One of my goals was to make this very personal story as universal as possible,” Rosenblatt said.

The Oscars ceremony will be held March 27 in Los Angeles, and he said he plans to attend with his wife, Stephanie. “I wouldn’t miss it,” he said.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.