Filmed over a period of six years, the documentary “Raising Bertie” profiles the lives of three young black men coming of age in rural Bertie County, N.C. – about 150 miles east of the Triangle. Shot in intimate vérité style, the film weaves three stories together as the young men move from late teenage years into early adulthood among grief, violence, change, love and loss.
On Saturday, the film makes its world premiere at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, closing the circle on a remarkable filmmaking journey that almost didn’t happen at all.
The story of 3 boys
In 2009, Brooklyn-based filmmaker Margaret Byrne traveled to Bertie County to profile The Hive, a newly established and innovative alternative school for at-risk students. The plan was to make a short film about the project, but that plan fell apart when the school was abruptly shut down due to lack of funding.
Byrne decided to keep filming anyway. In fact, she kept filming for six more years, returning to Bertie County a few weeks or a few months at a time, and gradually shifting the film’s focus to its three subjects.
“I realized the film was really about the lives of these boys,” Byrne said. “I wasn’t sure where the story would lead, but six years later I think we’ve landed in a good place. It took this long to really be able to honor their stories.”
“Raising Bertie” follows three young men initially enrolled at The Hive: Reginald “Junior” Askew, David “Bud” Perry, and Davonte “Dada” Harrell. As the years pass, we’re privy to pivotal moments in their lives.
Davonte makes the high school football team and attends the senior prom. Reginald visits his biological father in jail, meeting him for the first time since early childhood. David becomes a father himself. We also meet family members and others in the Bertie community, including school officials, parole officers and Vivian Saunders, founder of The Hive.
“Raising Bertie” isn’t a traditional social issue documentary. No experts are quoted, no statistics are cited, no infographics are assembled onscreen. Instead, we simply get these three stories, told through images and words. Taken together, they provide a curiously intimate look at what life is like for young black men in an impoverished rural community where opportunities are scarce and potential pitfalls are everywhere.
A ‘hometown’ world premiere
Byrne is as surprised as anyone at the film that finally emerged from her visit to Bertie County seven years ago.
“From the beginning, I didn’t expect to have the relationship that I have now with the young men and their families,” Byrne said. “I consider them like my little brothers. I actually have a brother their age, too. Over the years I found myself comparing them all of the time.”
A single mother, Byrne brought her daughter along whenever she returned to Bertie County. For long stretches of time, she essentially financed the film herself as she worked on other projects. Byrne was an editor and cinematographer on the similarly themed documentary “American Promise” – winner of the 2013 Full Frame Grand Jury Prize.
Partial funding for “Raising Bertie” was eventually secured from sources including the MacArthur Foundation, Ford Foundation and the Southern Documentary Fund. The project is also co-produced by Kartemquin films, the award-winning Chicago filmmaking collective behind marquee documentary projects like “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters.”
“Raising Bertie” will have its world premiere Saturday at Full Frame, a happy development that thrills both Byrne and producer Ian Robertson Kibbe, a Chapel Hill native and UNC alum.
“Full Frame is my hometown festival, and we both thought if we could premiere there, how natural and appropriate that would be,” Kibbe said.
“Honestly, I remember thinking years ago that if this could premiere at Full Frame, that would be so great,” said Byrne, who now lives in Chicago. “And here we are.”
Raising important questions
“Raising Bertie” may not be an overt social issue documentary, but the themes it explores are clearly evident and certainly of the moment. The film resonates powerfully with contemporary issues of racial inequality, educational opportunities and the Black Lives Matter movement. Interestingly, none of this was by design.
“We didn’t expect, six years ago, that these issues would be where they are today,” Kibbe said. “When you start a project, you don’t know what the world will look like when you’re done. This film is coming out at a very important time in the national conversation we’re having around how we view young black men, and what opportunities there are.”
Saturday’s screening of “Raising Bertie” will include a discussion session with filmmakers as well as the three young men profiled in the film.
With “Raising Bertie” now ready to premiere, Byrne said she’s glad that she kept the film’s intimate focus.
“We interviewed a lot of other people that would be considered leaders or experts, but I didn’t want to make an issue film,” Byrne said. “I think that this says a lot more. This is more powerful. And hopefully it leaves you asking questions, because we don’t have any answers in the film.”
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
When: April 7-10
Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham, and other venues
Cost: $16 for individual tickets, $27 for special events, $14 for educators, students and military
“Raising Bertie” will premiere at Full Frame at 4:30 p.m. Saturday in Carolina Theatre’s Fletcher Hall.