Logline: An intimate portrait of three boys growing into adulthood in a rural African American-led community.
Synopsis: Set in Bertie County, located in Eastern North Carolina, the film offers viewers a respectful and tender insight into the emotional lives of Reginald “Junior” Askew, David “Bud” Perry, and Davonte “Dada” Harrell as they face a precarious coming of age and try to define their identities.
This raw and starkly poetic cinéma vérité film weaves their stories together as they navigate school, unemployment, violence, first love, fatherhood, and estrangement from family members and mentors, subtly exploring the complex relationships between generational poverty, economic isolation, and educational inequity.
Length: 102 minutes
Director: Margaret Byrne
Producer: Margaret Byrne, Ian Robertson Kibbe
About the director and producer:
Margaret Byrne, Director / Producer, has worked in documentary film for over fifteen years. She was a cinematographer and an additional editor on Emmy nominated American Promise (2013). Margaret produced and edited a music documentary series that launched MTV across Africa and was previously a Creative Director at Universal Music Group.
Ian Robertson Kibbe, Producer. Ian, originally from North Carolina, has spent the last 10 years working as a producer and director with Kartemquin Films. His work has appeared on CNN, Time, Huffington Post, NPR and PBS. Ian is multi-racial and has his own unique and complex relationship to "race" and identity. As he puts it, "My father is White-American, my mother is Afro-Jamaican. Together they made Macaulay Culkin."
A Co-Production of Kartemquin FIlms & Beti Films
Sales Agent: FilmBuff
Funders: MacArthur Foundation, Ford Foundation, Southern Documentary Fund, Harper Foundation, One Economy, Good Pitch, IFP1.
Why did you make Raising Bertie?
I originally went to Bertie County in 2009 to make a short film about The Hive, an alternative school for boys. When I first visited, I realized that this community's story was one that wasn’t being talked about in the national media.
At the time, I was also shooting American Promise, a thirteen-year film following the education of two middle class African American boys attending an elite Manhattan school. There were similarities between these Urban and Rural areas and also great differences that connected to issues of race, access, opportunity and education. When talking to the students at The Hive, I observed that they all had one thing in common: they all felt misunderstood.
So, the plan was to follow three young men at the school for one year, but early into filming, The Hive was closed down by the Board of Education because of budgetary shortfalls.
We really had to rethink our plan.
So we got an apartment in Bertie, and instead of abandoning the project, we continued to film Junior, Bud, and Dada as they returned to the public high school. We weren’t sure where the story would lead, but we did know that the perspective of the boys was worth sharing.
People would ask me, why are you filming them? First and foremost, I saw their value and I recognized that they were often overlooked and pushed to the side. I also saw that what they were struggling with had to do with much larger systemic issues.
Despite appearances and differences in upbringing, their struggles felt familiar to me. At the time, I was married to an African man who faced many of the same challenges that the boys did. He not only faced the negative stereotype of being black and poor, but, despite having a high school diploma, he could barely read. There is much more that defines him. I knew the strong man he was and I recognized a similar passion and potential in Junior, Bud, and Dada.
I also felt a connection to and a profound respect for Vivian Saunders, the woman who was running The Hive. She is from the community, raised her kids in Bertie and is deeply connected to the area. Although The Hive closed, she was able to build a new center by reaching into the community, utilizing relationships and building on the strengths and assets that areas like Bertie have, like strong faith and family values.
Most of all, the real reason I wanted to tell this story is that I love these families and once I started filming them I knew we wouldn’t stop until I felt we had honored the truth of who they are.
A couple years ago when I screened a demo for a young men in Bertie, he was shocked. He said, “I’ve never seen anyone like us in a film before. This is what it was like for me growing up.”
Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
It’s an intimate, poetic film that will leave you asking yourself complicated but important questions about race, education, social equity and your connection to our nation’s forgotten rural communities. Most of all, I know it will make you feel something.
Is this a personal or a universal story for you?
This story is certainly personal to me, because of my relationship with the families in the film, but I also think it should be personal to everyone. Nationally, we depend on rural communities like Bertie. Rural areas provide most of our food, house most of our prisoners, and provide a large number of our armed personnel.
Unfortunately, many rural Americans are not sharing in our nation’s economic growth. Currently, 85 percent of our country’s persistent poverty counties are in rural America. One in four American students attends school in a rural community and two out of every five of these students live in poverty.
For minorities in rural areas this situation is even worse, as poverty rates are nearly three times that of rural whites. These are communities we depend on to survive everyday, and yet we aren’t giving them the respect or attention they deserve.
Kartemquin Films was also the production company behind Hoop Dreams. How has the longitudinal film evolved over the last 20 years?
I asked Gordon Quinn, the founder of Kartemquin and an EP on Hoop Dreams, his thoughts and he said, ”It’s funny, Hoop Dreams started out as a half hour film about street basketball and we realized the real story was to follow the boys all the way through high school and we ended up filming 5 years. We realized you can understand so much more over a longer period of time.”
I was a cinematographer on American Promise (2013), a thirteen-year longitudinal documentary following two middle class African American boys that attend an elite Manhattan school. I began Raising Bertie in 2009 while I was still shooting American Promise, so I’ve spent much of my career shooting longitudinal documentaries.
I never expected to spend six-years filming Raising Bertie, it’s just the length of time the story needed in order to be told, to fully see the boys transition and grow into adults. I love stories that develop over years because you see how subtle changes in ordinary moments can be so revealing and tell a much bigger story. Watching real people and real stories unfold over a long period of time is amazing.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
We have gotten a lot of great feedback. Here are a few quotes and links to articles about the film.
"A faithful depiction of three young black men growing up in rural North Carolina. After the premiere of the film, the subjects came on stage and one of the men said that that moment was “the happiest day of my life.” Real honest emotions from real subjects, real people, real experiences."
— Tom Roston, POV blog
"In a time when political dysfunction, farcical pop culture recaps and kitten videos seems to capture and hold the media and nation’s attention, Raising Bertie fills a tremendous void. Through careful, long-form visual storytelling Raising Bertie artfully explores larger problems plaguing the South... Every state legislator, every high school student and dammit, every citizen who cares about the state needs to watch Raising Bertie."
— Sandra Davidson, Bit & Grain
"Astounding and powerful."
— Bryn Gelbart, Indiewire
"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... The film resonates powerfully with contemporary issues of racial inequality, educational opportunities and the Black Lives Matter movement."
— Glenn McDonald, The News & Observer
"A subject that we all think we know about, but have never seen this intimately, and it’s powerful."
— Rob Tiller, The Casual Blog
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
Both, as it should. I think during the making of this film like this we did a good job of asking ourselves a lot of very hard questions about access and privilege and who we are to tell these stories. We talked about stereotypes and existing media in this space. We learned about issues that impact rural communities, and the legacy of systemic racism in the rural South.
We connected with issue leaders and organizations that work in these spaces so that they could better inform us, and we constantly asked ourselves about how this would impact these families and what their needs would be. I think some of the feedback reflects that hard work, which very gratifying.
That said, there is always more we can do. It’s a film that deals with a lot of sensitive and emotional issues and some people struggle with that. You’d love to make a movie that everyone likes with subjects and issues that everyone falls in love with immediately, but real life is rarely like that for films or people.
Our film doesn’t have the kind of golden ticket ending that some people crave, but we think it’s a real portrait of what life is like in communities like Bertie.
We have also had conversations where people said things like, “The families are so dysfunctional,” but when you push back and ask them what they mean or what they base that on, they come back and say, “Well, I guess what I mean is that these families function differently from mine.”
Another thing that surprised us early on is how different people in different parts of the country connected to the issues in the film. We would show the film in Chicago and people would start talking about how many of these issues are a result of systemic racism.
Then we would show it in North Carolina and the same issues would start off being discussed through the lens of rural disenfranchisement. What was really cool is when people began to see that all these issues are connected in communities like Bertie. Institutional racism and rural isolation and a host of other issues are at work in these young men’s lives.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on this platform?
I hope people will go see the film, sign up for the newsletter and continue having complex conversations about the issues raised in the film.
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film’s message?
We need all the help we can get! We’re certainly looking for distribution while we screen at film festivals and we would love to find the right broadcaster. We also hope to be able to talk to reporters not just about the film, but to engage more in the issues and the questions the film raises about race and education equity in rural communities.
What type of impact would you like this film to have?
Rural minority youth in communities like Bertie are the most vulnerable and underrepresented in our society. They face many issues, that layer and weave together and play out in their daily lives in both overt and subtle ways. They face complicated issues that require complicated conversations to address, and while the film does not confront these issues head on, after every one of our screenings we have witnessed the powerful emotional discussions of these systemic challenges take place.
Through community screenings and a strategic publicity campaign that builds on the emotional connections created by the film, we believe, and have seen, that this film creates the space and empathy needed to have these difficult, deep conversations.
What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?
How is your life story similar to these young men’s? How is it different?
What are you developing or directing now?
We have a lot of impact work to do with Raising Bertie, but I am also developing a couple of new films. I’m in production on a documentary feature following three detainees that are receiving mental health treatment at Cook County Jail, the largest mental health provider in the country. I’m also producing a scripted feature based on a true story, Three Sisters, the story of one woman's survival after being trapped in a box truck with 42 other immigrants on a hot Texas day.