Margaret Byrne on Raising Bertie: filming hope – Pt. 1
Part 1 of 3
Margaret Byrne is a powerhouse. Her longitudinal documentary Raising Bertie wowed audiences and critics alike after its release last month. We were lucky enough to talk to the inspirational filmmaker about her work and life.
FILM DAILY: Raising Bertie raises some real issues around the American schooling system, not to mention race poverty, inequality, and how rural areas can be overlooked. What are your hopes for the conversations this documentary might spark?
MARGARET BYRNE: Since this last presidential election, there’s been a lot more interest in looking at rural communities in this country. And we don’t often hear about our rural communities of color, which make up around twenty percent of the rural population. Twenty percent of our public-school students attend rural schools, but our focus is so often on urban issues. My hope with the film is to really connect urban and rural communities, to contribute to that conversation. Because we are such a divided country, I think the first step to solving anything is understanding.
There’s not a lot of context offered in the film (Raising Bertie). It’s really about the lives of these three young men and about growing up in a place where there’s not a lot of opportunity. There’s not a lot to do, and what’s the outcome of that? Originally, I had set out to make a film about hope.
FD: Tell us about how the film project came about.
BYRNE: Vivian Saunders was running an alternative school, The Hive, for young men outside the regular school system. I was introduced to her and her work, and saw that this program was really engaging these young men in the community.
What I set out to do was follow a few young men from this school for a year, to take a deeper look at what this program was doing for this community. And, very early on into filming, the school shut down. I really struggled with this idea of, well, I’m filming . . . you know, black men, with no agency . . . so it was tough to figure out what the film was really about.
But I knew I wasn’t going to desert these guys, as we’d become very close to them and their families. I knew their stories were valuable and would be worth telling. So that’s how it became a six-year project. We filmed for six years. We edited for almost two years. And I really took my time, and you know, they are like a family to me. They’re a big part of my life now, even though we finished filming two years ago.
I’m a single mother, so in the process of making this film, I usually traveled down with my daughter. So she’s spent a lot of time in North Carolina and has grown up in this community, with the kids there, and it’s been a big influence in her life.
FD: Because you have such a close relationship with the community in Bertie, will you continue to explore stories about them? Would you revisit the lives of Reginald “Junior” Askew, David “Bud” Perry, and Davonte “Dada” Harrell in the coming years, or is this a standalone project?
BYRNE: Well, I know they’ll always be in my life. I know we’ll always be in each other’s lives, but I have no plans to make another film. If I were to revisit, it would have to be some time in the future. At this point I appreciate getting to visit and not having to work. It’s beautiful to see them become parents and fathers. David, the youngest, has a baby due next year. And Junior’s son turns two in August. It’s amazing to see them grow into extremely beautiful people: fathers that care about their children and think about their futures. They’ve grown so much in the past two years since we finished filming.
Bud told me just last week that he sees his daughter almost every day. He said to me, “You know, the most important thing in my life is being a father and all I want to do is spend time with her.” That’s such a contrast to where we see him in the film, where his idea was to provide for her financially. Now he understands that relationship is important, something he didn’t have with his father.
With Junior, it’s wonderful to see him become a father and how that’s changed him. He said to me that one day he realized he didn’t have to work on the line for the rest of his life. He realized he could move up in this company, so he got the right license, and now he’s telling other people what to do. I think it took him maturing some more, to be a father, to see that he can build something.
FD: What was it about The Hive that inspired you so much when you first met them? You started Raising Bertie as a short-term project, but it turned into a six-year process. Why was this story so important to tell?
BYRNE: I saw that these guys were up against incredible odds and didn’t have much working for them. This program was something they believed in because, for the first time, they started to believe in themselves. Nobody had really ever paid attention to them before, because they weren’t the best students. Whether they had a learning disability or behavioral issues, nobody had ever asked them how they felt.
I think Vivian [The Hive’s founder] realized they weren’t getting the support they needed when she said, “I never want to see that happen to another young man in this community”. She committed herself to looking out for these guys and ran the resource center in Bertie, which she set up for twenty years.
Through that center, she would meet these young men that had either dropped out or been expelled from school. She took them all under her wing and provided the more holistic education that they really needed. They were in school from 8:00 a.m. until 6:00 at night. It kept them busy and engaged. She knew how to meet them where they were at. I think she gave them their respect back. Those young men didn’t have to defend themselves there – they could be themselves.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Watch the documentary now on iTunes.