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Interview with RAISING BERTIE director Margaret Byrne

November 17, 2016

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cinematographer, Jon Stuyvesant stands next to “Raising Bertie” director, Margaret Byrne

 

Now more than ever, the world needs “Raising Bertie”, especially the white world. Of course, I’m speaking from experience when I say that, but if I feel that a documentary that follows the daily lives of three African-American teens is timely and important in breaking down racial barriers, then I’m confident in such a proclamation. Produced and directed by local Chicago filmmaker Margaret Byrne (founder of Beti Films), whose stark cinéma vérité style captures their stories as they try to navigate: school, work, anger, love, fatherhood, and estrangement from family members or mentors, while touching on the complex relationships between generational poverty, economic isolation, and educational inequity, in rural Bertie county, North Carolina.

At a time in our nation when it is imperative that racial stereotypes be removed from representation of any group, Byrne immerses herself, and viewers, in a part of Eastern North Carolina that can definitely benefit from such a spotlight. This is an area where 80% of the rural population is black, where the poverty rates are nearly triple that of whites; an area where such an issue will largely go ignored. To introduce viewers to the Bertie (pronounced Bur-Tee) community, Byrne followed Reginald “Junior” Askew, David “Bud” Perry, and Davonte “Dada” Harrell, for six years. The result is an intimate and insightful look at the uncertain and pivotal teenage years, as this trio try to determine their own identities and future.

The boys that Byrne followed were found at school called The Hive, a specialty school that embraced at-risk students. Now closed, that school introduced Byrne to these three boys and their families, which provided the motivation for this longitudinal documentary. It’s the kind of documentary filmmaking where a director spends years with a subject (think “Hoop Dreams” or “Stevie” by Steve James or “American Dream” from Barbara Kopple), recording big life events, but mostly the small moments that add up to create a relatable life story.

Most of the boys lived with their mothers and siblings – with their fathers either uninvolved or incarcerated at one of the many prisons in the area. One boy finds Bertie boring, but considers leaving the county an intimidating thought and all three of them struggle through the demands of finishing high school. Co-produced by Kartemquin films, the award-winning Chicago filmmaking collective, “Raising Bertie” puts viewers in the shoes of these boys, offering an understanding and appreciation of their lives – and, in turn offers a viewing experience that is wholly relatable for everyone, regardless of race, gender, age or economic background.

I first caught “Raising Bertie” last month at the Chicago International Film Festival and this week I was able to talk to Margaret Byrne in anticipation of the film’s week-long run at the Gene Siskel Film Center here in Chicago, starting tomorrow. Byrne will be in attendance, along with producer Ian Kibbe, and editor Leslie Simmer, to participate in post-screening audience discussions on these specific dates:

NOVEMBER 18 at 8:00 PM
NOVEMBER 19 at 8:00 PM
NOVEMBER 20 at 5:30 PM

Get your tickets here!

 

 

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David J. Fowlie: You’ve said in other interviews that you originally came to Bertie to make a documentary about The Hive, but how did come to know about The Hive?

Margaret Byrne: Well, I had been commissioned to make a short film which was an honor video for the woman who ran The Hive, Vivian Saunders. So, the non-profit which was chartered out to run the school, through the public school system, they had given her an award. That premiered at their award gala and then, from there, and really when I was there, that’s when I decided, ‘let’s make a documentary’. You know, let’s make a feature film that follows the young men at the school, for a year.

DJF: How far along were you in shooting before The Hive actually closed?

MB: We actually only had two shoots before The Hive closed. You know, maybe we shot for one week and then another was about five days. And then, I was concerned – you know, ‘what is the film going to be about?’ and  ‘what’s gonna happen to these guys?’ That’s what the bigger question for me was ‘what’s gonna happen to these guys?’ they’re gonna return to the school system that they weren’t functioning well in. It was a very last-minute decision by the board of education, to close the school. Everybody thought, you know, we were planning on going back to shoot at the end of August and then everything changed about two weeks before.

DJF: Obviously, that changes things for you. Then you decided to follow these three specific teens – what stood out to you about them that led to that decision?

MB: Well, it was a bit of a process finding them. I did find Junior right away, when I was working at The Hive on that first shoot and he was featured in that short film that I had made. I was really looking for young men that were engaging, that really represented a cross-section of Bertie youth. And I found Dada – it was about nine months into production. So, I shot a little bit of him at The Hive, but hadn’t really connected with him on that level. So, I had met his mom on election day and she was standing outside handing out flyers – and, really connected with her. I was telling her about the project. She told me about her son. And then, a couple months later, I went to their house and that’s when we started filming Dada and that first interview you see is actually the first time we ever meet him, when he’s talking about his dad. And I knew right away that his emotional honesty was something that was needed to balance out the film. It was pretty incredible for us.

DJF: And Bud?

MB: And Bud I found at The Hive. So, I had been followed him since the beginning.

DJF: Okay. After my first viewing of the film, my initial response was how timely it was that we have a documentary that immerses itself in the lives of three African-American teens, essentially breaking down racial stereotypes. Was that intent something you became aware of or was it purposeful?

MB: I think that was always the intention. To create some empathy and understanding about these young guys that I thought people didn’t understand in their community and they certainly didn’t understand outside the rural community. And, I do admit, rural stories don’t have the same attention, especially stories about rural education. Coming from working on “American Promise” for about eight years, which follows to African-American boys throughout their entire education – from kindergarten to when the graduate high school and go off to college. That’s in New York City and you so many films that are set in large urban areas and that’s usually the focus of the national discussion. But, I think even on just the results of this election, we need to start listening to rural voices because they matter.

DJF: Agreed. Especially with the campaigns and the election, we heard so much about uneducated rural voters, whether they be white or black and how they impacted the election. But, this film breaks down barriers or pre-conceived notions.

MB: Yeah. And it’s easy to just look at things through the media and stereotype the population. I think that this is a story that is a more complete look and, you know, that’s why we spent six years filming them. And I think that’s why it was important.

 

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DJF: Can you talk about the process and mentality that goes into longitudinal documentary filmmaking? To me, the whole process seems to be a huge commitment and very daunting. You spent years on your previous film and then on this one it was seven years. So, how do you tackle that – is it just one year at a time?

MB: Yeah. I think it’s like anything. You take it one day at a time and you just keep pushing forward, knowing that this is an important story to tell and it’s gonna take some time to tell it. You’re also multi-tasking and doing other things at the same time. It takes a lot of patience and caring for people in order to do that. But, for me, it was really a natural process because you truly do care about the families of these guys and I enjoyed going there and being there.

DJF: Well, it definitely shows in the end product that you care about these families and these young men. I feel like, as much as most viewers may not have an understanding of rural life and especially rural teens, but I feel like, in the end, when we’re done watching this, it’s obvious that we can relate to their lives because we all need guidance and direction as we struggle with learning, getting a job, growing up, becoming a parent and following our passions. Was all that on your mind during the filmmaking process, that this would be a very relatable film for everybody?

MB: Yeah, I don’t want to make a film that just preaches to the choir. That just talks to people who already understand these issues and what young people are going through, particularly African-American men in rural communities. I can only hope that it’s relatable to everybody, because it’s a human story and it’s often about the small moments in life that everybody can relate to. I think those small moments are what makes up a life and I think that’s the beauty of using verite filmmaking to really portray those events. A lot of times people will ask me ‘well, how did you know when to go down there?’ and sometimes we knew ‘okay, something’s happening’, like Mickey Mouse (Dada’s older brother) is coming home from prison or Dada’s graduating or Bud’s going to the prom. You know, stuff like that. We had to be there every few months. Were there things that we missed? Certainly. But you can’t talk to them on the phone and say ‘hey, what’s going on?’ because when people are having a film made of them – and really, anybody – they look at their lives and they go ‘well, I don’t see anything important going on’, but again, all those little moments is what makes up a life. I think that’s what we all relate to as human beings.

DJF: Very true. Here’s more of a personal question – how did you change or grow as a person during the course of the filmmaking process?

MB: I would say that this community and these young men had more of an influence on me than I had on them. My daughter grew up there, in many ways. She spent a lot of time there and considered them family as much as I considered them family. I mean, I look at it like my second home. It’s always an honor to be able to live within other people’s lives and to experience things that you wouldn’t have otherwise experienced. I came from a certain place and making films give me an opportunity and a reason to go to other places and embed myself and really understand life, many times, in more ways than I understand the places that I’ve lived.

DJF: You certainly can’t go away from an experience like that unchanged. 

MB: Right. I know more about the politics of Bertie County than I do about Humboldt Park, where I live. It’s just because it’s something that I’ve done so much research on. I’m always paying attention and I definitely consider it my second home.

DJF: On the flip side then, have you noticed how this experience has changed the lives of Junior, Dada and Bud and their families?

MB: You know, I can’t speak for them, but I know, from what they’ve said at Q&As and from what we’ve talked about – Dada has said many times that when we first started shooting the film he was very shy and couldn’t talk in front of people and always sat in the back of the class. Now he’s spoken in front of a thousand people and he’s comfortable with it and he’s interested in telling his story and telling the story of Bertie and where he comes from. He’s actually, just this past weekend, moved into his own place and that’s been a huge coming-of-age moment for him and his mom. He’s doing really well and I think, for Bud, just spending time with them and knowing that we’re not going away. We’re always there and being a constant. For all of them, you know, I’m not their mom, I’m not their sister, but I care about them nevertheless and I’m not going away. And I think that in and of itself has an influence on people’s lives. Not that they are accountable, but they know I am there and that I know what’s going on and I’m gonna show up. I’m gonna be in their lives and I think that that kind of relationship will always have an impact in people’s lives.

 

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DJF: As you say that, I think about how just the fact that you show that you care and that you’re not going anywhere, you yourself have kind of broken the stereotype that they might have about adults. 

MB: And even white people. I remember Junior telling me ‘you’re my first white friend. I’ve never had a white friend’. And, you know, Jon () and I, who spent time with me in Bertie and he’s the DP and producer. We really worked on this together to see this thing through. We come from a different place, we offer them different experiences and exposure to different things and when you have friends with different experiences that’s a good thing to have on both sides. They’ve had an opportunity to go to New York and L.A. and D.C., Chicago and I think all those things are great things to do – just to get out and see other places and just see how other people live, to see what’s out there for you.

But, I’m certainly not in any position to, nor would I ever claim, that I could change their lives. They are who they are. I’m proud of them for that.

DJF: Yeah, you’re giving them a voice, a spotlight that they probably wouldn’t have ever had. Changing their lives is up to them. 

MB: Yeah.

DJF: Since you spent so much time making this film, how do you decide what’s next after an experience like this?

MB: I’m in a challenging position right now, because I’m starting a film, I call it “Version 2.0”, because I started it about a year ago when I was filming the mental health treatment inside Cook County Jail. Then I realized that that just wasn’t the story that I wanted to tell. I spent a considerable amount of time working on it and through that process I was introduced to the Mental Healthworks Program with a fantastic judge and these participants in the program, some of them are really succeeding and some of them the program isn’t really working out. But, the majority I’d say, you know, to see people who are struggling with mental illness, who would be in prison otherwise, would be in a work-mandated treatment program, to see them turn their lives around – it’s really been an incredible thing to watch and definitely a challenge to film in many aspects. With the participants and the court system, so it’s like I’m back to square one on this project and I’m grateful with all the success of “Bertie” and I’m hoping that I can somehow repeat the process. I can’t say that I could ever repeat this experience since it is a unique experience that I’ll never have again. But they’ll always be with me and I’ll always see them.

Actually, me and my daughter take KeKe, who was Dada’s nephew in the movie (Mickey Mouses’ son), so he stays with us in the summer. That’s been really great because she’s an only child and he’s an only child, in some ways and he’s become like a little brother for her and it’s been great relationships for all of us. I just told him we got him his Six Flags Great America season passes for next summer.

 

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DJF: (laughs) That’s awesome. That’s great. So, this next film that you’re working on, will it also be distributed through Kartemquin?

MB: That is in the works. They are currently our fiscal sponsor. We’re going through negotiations, but you need a little bit more meat, you need a little bit more development in the project before you can find a co-production deal, but I definitely intend to make a film with Kartemquin. It’s been an incredible community of filmmakers to work with. In particular, Gordon (Kartemquin co-founder Gordon Quinn)  is somebody I’m honored to have been able to work with on “Bertie” and I hope to work with him again on this next film. He’s made it clear he’ll be there, however I want him. He has been somebody who has been so supportive of young filmmakers and has done so much work in that area and I think a lot of directors are so self-focused on their own and him as a director, himself. He’s spent more time helping other people, more than anything else. I really am so thankful just to be able to work with him and I always say ‘Gordon will understand what you’re film is about before you do’.

DJF: Sounds like a very intuitive collaborator. 

MB: Yeah, absolutely.

DJF: Hey, I really appreciate your time here today. I’m hoping to get to the Siskel Center this weekend….

MB: Oh, that would be great.

DJF: I’m hoping to make it out there maybe Sunday, but you know, being a husband and father, my weekends get booked up.

MB: I totally get it! I’m always like ‘I really wanted to go, but I’m a single mom’.

DJF: Again, it’s been great to talk to you, Margaret. I wish you well.

MB: Yeah, thanks so much.

 

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director Margaret Byrne with her extended family from “Raising Bertie” 

 

 

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