Friday, April 4, 2014

"Reject" - A Documentary About Social Rejection


I recently had the privilege of being invited to a screening of the new documentary movie "Reject". The event was sponsored by the South Bend Heritage Center at IUSB and they chose to share the movie with local school districts from around the area. (read more about their work here) My son and I took a break from our normal mid-week routines and were rewarded with a remarkable experience.

The movie's focus is on Social rejection and examines the ramifications of the pain it causes. For the first time, at least for me, the film illuminates how closely related social pain and physical pain are to each other. The researchers in the film show, with great clarity, that our brains process each type in much the same way. When someone who has had their feeling hurt say that they are in pain, they literally (not to overuse the most overused word right in America right now) mean it. It feels one and the same. The movie provides a great deal of evidence that social rejection may be the cause for not only bullying, but for other types of violence in our world as well.

The film's message is told in part through the stories of two children, Eric and Justin, and their very different paths from social rejection.

One of the boys, Eric Mohat, took his life after years of bullying. His parents help us understand how kids "are really good at screening" their pain "from their parents." They try to piece together the events that unfolded that caused their son to take such a tragic step. Eric's social and emotional anchor, a performing choral group, ultimately fails him and he decides that he can't go on. If you're a parent, his mother's emotions will rip your heart out. Her tears and expressions puts a sick feeling in your stomach. Eric's father, very eloquently, tells their story very clearly, conveying the terrifying message that it could happen to any family.

It wasn't clear to me when the father's sequences were filmed and how much time had passed since his son's death, but while not emotionless, he seemed detached from the awful event and at times, a little flat. It seemed clear that he has found a way, emotionally, to tell his family's story with enough composure to do what he can to ensure that this kind of tragedy doesn't happen again. The father is composed and purposeful, until a late scene in the movie, where you could see his anger make a brief but startling appearance when he asks (paraphrasing) "how could this happen?"

The other boy in the film, Justin, is a kindergarten student who was rejected by by his teacher and school. Expelled in Kindergarten, (KINDERGARTEN!) Justin's mom looks for an organization to support her son instead of labeling him. They land in the embrace of a teacher who accepts this child for who he can be and not for the behavior choices he has made. My own son would be fortunate to have a teacher like Mrs Varnell. Her classroom is one of acceptance and community. She slowly heals Justin's rejection and puts him on a path for lifelong success.


Vivian Paley, creator and author of "You Can't Say, You Can't Play", asks the viewers "Do children teach themselves to be welcoming, noble and just?", answering her own question "it seems they do not." The experts in the film are not charismatic. Their findings are not delivered in an entertaining way and often a little dry and scholarly. This film's main purpose is to inform, not entertain. Raise alarms, not our hackles. Unlike some documentaries, it never feels like it is trying to manipulate the viewer, but it will more than likely make you cry.

There are times where I found myself, saying why are these people not more animated. Show some passion, some outrage, get p@#$ed off. Don't be so academic! Then I realized that maybe the movie was not made to create an emotional response, but to help us understand where all of this violence may originate so that we can do something about it. Action not outrage.

Some of the key things that I learned while watching the film:
(some are direct quotes, but my notes were taken during viewing and cannot properly attribute to speaker or narrator.)
  • Animals reactions to physical pain is aggression. There is a direct parallel to social rejection in humans.
  • Social rejection and isolation are strategies of bullying behavior.
  • 15 languages characterize social pain with physical pain.
  • "Rejection almost always leads to shame and rage"
  • Acceptance and inclusion drives learning.
  • If you restore their sense of belonging the aggression goes way down.
  • Rejected people act aggressively towards innocents. (
  • "We're raising children, not just teaching them"
  • "Maybe it's time to have a conversation about how hurt feelings and physical harm are more similar than different."
One of the film's producers and host of the IUSB screening, Peter Brauer (@goodrulesus), stayed after the movie to answer questions and talk further about the film. "The focus of the film was social rejection and not the more minor rejections of life and competition", adding that "rejection is inevitable." Mr Brauer elaborated, "The kind of pain the film deals with is not the kind generated from not making varsity or the cheerleading team."

In the end the film is a call to action. Act early in kids lives before the hierarchy of rejection is established and bullying, domestic violence, school shootings and the like could be reduced. One of the researchers asks late in the film, that the decision of rejection is simple "are you in or are you out?"

I'm in.

You can find out more about the movie here
Follow the film on Twitter @RejectFilm
Hopefully you can find a screening near you. http://rejectfilm.com/resources/

Thanks for reading!

Follow me on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher

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