When “Raising Bertie” premiered at the Full Frame Film Festival last summer in Durham, North Carolina, it was just over a two-hour drive for the film’s subjects — Davonte (“Dadae”), Reginald (“Junior”) and David (“Bud”), three young men from rural Bertie County — but for all involved, it had felt like they had traveled so much further.
“One of the things you see in the film is that they live in this community and they don’t really leave this community,” says director Margaret Byrne, who had initially gone to Bertie with plans to make a film about The Hive, an alternative school started by Vivian Saunders for the at-risk African-American youth she saw wandering around her neighborhood, and found herself instead following three of its students. “That’s why you really leave Bertie [in the film] because you never really leave their perspective and their story. I never wanted [this] to become an advocacy film about the issues and experts talking on the issues. I wanted it to purely be their story.”
While six years passes in “Raising Bertie,” staying true to Davonte, Reginald and David’s experience means there’s a sense that time stands still for the three during some of their most formative years, though there’s plenty moving about Byrne’s satisfying portrait of them. Between 16-19 when we meet them, Davonte, Reginald and David step gingerly into their twenties, skeptical of sticking around their small town where it seems like there’s no future but uncertain of the alternative as each struggles with school and see few role models around. Their mothers work valiantly around the clock to put food on the table, while their fathers are largely absent – Reginald’s father is in prison while Davonte’s dad has forged a new life with a new girlfriend. Although David works with his dad as a landscaper, it’s not where he sees himself down the road, though he can’t easily shed anger issues that prevent him from getting ahead, and taken together, the trio’s restlessness suggests a powerful energy that simply needs a structure to be channeled towards achieving something positive.
The devotion of Byrne and her small crew to returning to Bertie time and again yields a film that’s gentle on the surface but stirs underneath, bringing into the focus the usually abstract forces that contribute to the young men’s predicament as well as the frustrations that can become fuel for change. Just days before “Raising Bertie” begins its theatrical run in New York, we reached Byrne as she was back in Bertie to spend time at Davonte’s mother’s house to reflect on her auspicious feature debut.
I originally came to Bertie in 2009 for a freelance job. I had to make a short video about The Hive, the alternative school you see in the film, and when John Stuyvesant, the [director of photography] and I came down here, we just realized there’s a much bigger story to be told. So we decided to come back and film Vivian and the young men at the Hive for a year and then early on into filming, The Hive shut down. Originally, I set out to make this story of hope and when the school closed down, it became far more complex. That summer of 2010, we [had already] spent a lot of time with the guys and with their families, so we continued to do just that and then followed them as they went back to the regular public schools. It took us a while to really regroup and figure out what the story was about and how long we’d be filming. I definitely didn’t think we’d be filming for six years. The guys definitely didn’t think that either, I’m sure. [laughs]
Even if you hadn’t planned for six years, it seems you were already planning for a longitudinal shoot to some degree. What was the attraction to that kind of project?
Yeah, I was planning to shoot for at least about a year and then when the school shut down, that’s when it really turned into a longitudinal project, which was something I was familiar with because I had worked on “American Promise,” another longitudinal film about two middle-class African-American boys going to and elite Manhattan school, for so many years. It was one of the first documentaries I ever worked on — I was in my young twenties — and it had a big influence in how I recognized the power of filming people over a period of time, because there’s another story to be told there. Working on that project also inspired me to want to take a look at rural education, which is where this film started.
Real stories are far more interesting to me than fiction and particularly longitudinal filmmaking. The film I’m working on now follows people that are in a mental health program and I’ve been working on it for a couple years now and I know it’s going to be another longterm project, just because of the nature of the subject of the film. I set out to film for maybe a year or 18 months, which is I’d say a pretty normal trajectory with documentary films, but I never seem to make those types of films, and there’s just something you understand about a people when you spend time with them and you revisit over and over and see how people change over time.
My concern was that I started out making one film and then I found myself continuing to make a film that wasn’t sure where it was headed. Filming young African-American men that have lost their agency, there was a question in my mind always as to is what I’m making authentic or am I showing how multidimensional they are or am I understanding their families and this community and the place they come from? They had this program, they lost this program and because of that, I didn’t know where their lives were headed, so of course, we were rooting for them, but they were up against some pretty strong odds. [Showing] the history of the place and all of that was very important, especially when we were editing the film, to think about that and balance the good with the bad.
Were there times when you thought about ending the film before you did?
We spent almost two years editing the film and that process was really helpful because I was still filming when we started editing, so we’d really honed in on what their story arcs were. For Junior, it was really about finding a job. For Dadae, it was very much about him dealing with the relationship with his father — when you [first] meet him, his father has just left and that really was difficult for him at that age — and also graduating high school [since] he was the youngest, and the last to graduate. I knew that we wanted to follow them long enough to see their successes and to also see what they end up doing in their lives and they’re all different ages, so we stopped filming in 2015. Of course, their lives are still going on and we certainly could’ve continued filming, but it was a natural stopping point for us.
It’s been extraordinary. We’re going to be on PBS on POV [later this year] and when I set out to make this film, that was my dream — to be on POV, so the fact the film landed there and will be seen and available for free online for a month, that’s really where I wanted it. But it’s been really an honor to tour with the film and share their story. The guys have been able to travel to different screenings, which has been great. Full Frame was incredible because we had 19 people from Bertie – Vivian and all the moms — the real heroes of the film, the guys and their girlfriends. Over a thousand people gave a standing ovation to them, so that was really a great moment to see.
“Raising Bertie” opens in New York on June 9th at the Maysles Cinema, San Francisco at the Roxie on June 16th and Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall on June 23rd. A full schedule of theaters and dates is here.