(Margaret Byrne, 2016)
The longitudinal documentary form, wherein a filmmaker follows its subject for years at a time, must certainly be the most daunting and difficult filmmaking experience imaginable. It’s a rare breed of filmmaking, requiring an unparalleled degree of patience and happenstance. It grew to prominence following Steve James’ Hoop Dreams and Stevie, both of which still remain the finest examples of the form. Yet fewer documentaries of its ilk are being made. Beyond the obvious fiscal difficulties associated with following a subject over such a long duration of time, there’s the intrinsic unknown quality that requires a certain noble constitution – the filmmaker and its subject(s) have only a fleeting idea of what’s to come. That’s a very difficult concept to accept as a filmmaker, subject, and producer.
So the fact that Raising Bertie exists is an accomplishment in itself. What we get from the film, thanks to director Margaret Byrne and the producers at Kartemquin Film, is nothing short of a feat of artistic heroism, defying the traditional modes of thinking associated with film production for something unabashedly humanistic. Initially conceived as a short film following students of Bertie County, North Carolina at a nonprofit alternative school called The Hive, the picture evolved into a feature length documentary. It follows three adolescent black students, Reginald “Junior” Askew, Davonte “Dada” Harrel, David “Bud” Perry and the community that orbits around them. A James Baldwin quote from “Notes on a Native Son” opens the film, suggesting the vitality of the community of Bertie and its role in shaping these young men’s lives: ‘I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also so much more than that. So are we all.'
It’s an important note to start on, especially as Byrne emphasizes the impoverished rural milieu as the vital spark that both contains and precludes opportunities for its youth. The community, sheltering a population of 80% African-American and 20% White, finds itself as most American rural communities often do: confronted with limited resources. The Hive offers a venue for students – most of whom have been expelled from the district’s public school system – to interact and learn without the typical constraints often associated with test-based curriculum.
The sudden closure of The Hive takes Byrne and her three students to the public school system, where Reginald, Davonte, and David are confronted with difficult social and academic obstacles that they need to clear. Byrne charts their development with the kind of compassion that considers the broader cultural circumstances of their troubles while contextualizing their struggles within the intimate social dynamic of their households: between attempting to find a job, incarcerated fathers, and encroaching parenthood, Reginald, Davonte, and David have distinct hurdles that are equal parts their own and part of larger macro concerns.
Byrne and DP/Producer Jon Stuyvesant capture Bertie with a tangible sense of what makes the community tick, punctuated by a tactile languor that is reminiscent of David Gordon Green’s George Washington (which was also shot in North Carolina). Its cinema vérité approach affords Bertie with a depth and visual richness that’s a rarity of its genre, with Byrne’s use of on-screen text providing the only real distinct distance between viewer and subject. The film, as all great social documentaries have the capacity of doing, can unsettle; I think of a sequence involving a brief fight between residents that implicates the audience in its voyeurism. But it’s an important moment, presenting Bertie’s social dynamic without embellishment and keying the viewer in on the potential hostility of such a vibrant, natural milieu. If I have to admonish Byrne for anything it’s that the scope of Raising Bertie suggests something larger; at a little over a hundred minutes, another hundred would not have seemed out of place. Regardless, this is Byrne’s debut film and I can only imagine we’ll be seeing much more of her intelligent and thoughtful work ahead.