Parents and teenagers who appear in the documentary "Bully" pleaded Thursday with former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), now the head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), to change the film's R rating.
And Harvey Weinstein, the film's producer who was also at the screening at the MPAA's office in Washington, echoed those pleas, saying, "The reason everyone wants the PG-13 is so kids can see the movie themselves."
"Bully" follows several middle- and high-school students, and depicts the emotional and physical suffering caused by bullying.
The filmmakers have officially appealed the rating, saying that the film offers an important message to children, but the MPAA's appeals board denied the motion on Feb. 23.
"There are some communities that won't show it in schools because it is an R rating," said David Long, who appears in the film and whose 17-year-old son committed suicide after relentless bullying. "My opinion is if the word can be allowed to be said once, what's the difference between once and six? Nothing. I mean, the word is getting said. It's out there."
Dodd said he called his friend Weinstein and organized the screening in Washington to bring attention to the film and its message.
But the panel discussion after the film quickly turned to the controversy over the rating.
"The rating has to be changed from R to PG-13 to honestly make a difference," said Katy Butler, a Michigan teenager who has gathered more than 300,000 signatures for a petition that urges Dodd to change the rating. "How many 15- and 14-year-olds want to see it with their parents? That's just not cool."
Butler, who does not appear in the film, told her story of being teased and even having her finger broken when a bully slammed a locker on it.
Weinstein questioned why the MPAA would issue an R rating over curse words when violent films such as "The Hunger Games" are rated PG-13.
"I hear 10 teenagers get killed and that's PG-13," Weinstein said of "The Hunger Games."
Dodd said the rating is not a judgment on the film's quality, adding, "In some cases [the rating system] is very clear; in other cases it's not as clear as it ought to be, in my view. But the ratings board made a decision on this, and my hope is we can find some way to work through this.
"We don't want that subject matter to step all over the important message that [director] Lee [Hirsch] crafted and that these people dedicated their lives to."
Hirsch interjected, saying, "But the R is stepping all over that and that's the problem. It's stepping over the experience of these kids."
Dodd suggested that the filmmakers should either release the film without a rating or edit out the cursing.
Hirsch said editing the language is not an option.
"Our reality is not censored," Kelby Johnson, a transgender teen who appears in the film, said to Dodd.
After the discussion, Weinstein told a group of reporters that he is open to releasing the film unrated and said that several major movie theater chains have already agreed to show it without a rating.
But he said he will continue to press his case with Dodd to rate the film as PG-13. He suggested a possible lawsuit over the issue, saying he has spoken with famed lawyers David Boies and Ted Olson.
"I think they're a formidable team, and I think they'll be taking a look at the MPAA's bylaws," Weinstein said. Boies and Olson argued against each other in the Supreme Court case Bush v. Gore that decided the 2000 presidential election and are now working together on a federal lawsuit to overturn California's Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage.
D.C. Public School Chancellor Kaya Henderson also spoke at the screening and said she plans to show "Bully" in District schools.