'Raising Bertie' paints portrait of hope and hardship for three young men


MILES O'BRIEN: Finally tonight, an intimate look into an often overlooked community.

The documentary "Raising Bertie" follows three young African-American men coming of age in rural North Carolina as they struggle with school, society and generational poverty.

Documentarians Margaret Byrne and Ian Kibbe spent six years filming the young men, and sat down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss what they found.

WOMAN: What in the world going to happen to these boys? Have we given them the tools to be able to survive without getting into trouble?

JEFFREY BROWN: The new documentary "Raising Bertie" takes us to a place and a people rarely the focus of films, television or other media.

Set in rural North Carolina, it centers on three African-American males as they move from their teenager years into young adulthood, the hardships they endure, the hope they maintain.

Filmmaker Margaret Byrne spent six years on the project. She and producer Ian Robertson Kibbe join me now.

And welcome to both of you.

MARGARET BYRNE, Director, "Raising Bertie": Thank you.

IAN KIBBE, Producer, "Raising Bertie": Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, six years is a long time for a film. Why did you want to make this? And did you know what you were getting into?

MARGARET BYRNE: Oh, I had no idea what I was getting into.

I originally went down there with Jon, the director of photography and a producer on the film, in 2009. And we — we intended to just follow the school for a year. And what happened is, the school, an alternative school for boys called the Hive, they closed down very early on into filming.

And so we had to decide, is this something we abandon, or is there a story here? And it really became a story about these three young men and their lives. And it took six years to tell it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Three young men and, as I said in the introduction, a place that we often do not see.

What did you see in it in the end when you entered the project?


Well, like you said, it was a community, and communities like this do not get nearly, I think, enough attention from the media or from our, you know, educational reform systems. And for me, as a North Carolinian, I grew up about two hours from Bertie.

And still I had no idea what this area was like or what the people in these communities lived like. And so I was really drawn to the project just because, in a lot of ways, I was ashamed not to have known more about these communities.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, I want to show you a little clip of — just to give our audience a little feel for it.

This introduces two of the young men. Let's take a look.

YOUNG MAN: Me and my mom been living together for six months without my dad.

I wish I could see my mom and dad get back together. And I was asked like why he doesn't call him.

It hurt.

YOUNG MAN: My neighborhood, it's fine. You just be back playing ball full court to the neighbor house over there.

My grandma stayed next door. Then my cousins stayed the next door right there. So, yes, we moved right here. There's one of my boys right here.

Our hood, people scared to come around here. We just stick together.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, that introduces us to two of the young men, David Perry and Davonte Harrell, right?

Margaret, these young men express frustration. There's futility in some scenes, a sense of loss. We just saw that.

I wonder what you — were you surprised by what you heard? And, also, how were you able to capture the kind of intimacy of their lives?

MARGARET BYRNE: Well, I think coming to Bertie as an outsider — I'm from the city. I lived in New York at the time. You know, I'm a white woman making a film in a majority African-American community.

I think what was really important is that when — you know, especially when we decided that it's about these young men, and we were trying to really figure out what this film is and learn about the community, we got an apartment, and we lived there.

And we spent time with the families, developing trust. And I think those relationships are key in the making of this film.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the sense of outsiderness?

I was reading your bio, and it said that you are of mixed race. And I was thinking about the outsiderness of somebody coming in, but also perhaps a sense of some understanding. What did it bring to your sense of this project?


I think there are a lot of ways that Margaret and myself were outsiders to this community. As someone who is mixed race, but does — looks like an Austrian ski instructor, I grew up in sort of the ultimate skin of male privilege, a white male living in the society.

And so that's something I think about a lot. And it has shaped my life tremendously. But, you know, I think there are a lot of ways that we were outsiders, and — but then there's also a lot of ways that we connect.

And I think one of the things we want people to get from this film is that this is a community you may not know, or you may not know someone who lives in, or you may not even be near, but there are sort of human elements, and these guys have tremendous value in their lives. And if we can kind of humanize them and sort of the issues that they're dealing with, I think that's sort of our main takeaway, is that we want people to connect to them as people.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to ask you, just from a filmmaking perspective, when we talk about something takes six years, you go with one idea in mind, right, to focus on the school. The school closes. Things change.

In the meantime, a lot changed in the culture, right? Black Lives Matters happened. A lot of things happened.


JEFFREY BROWN: Is that just the nature of your business, making documentaries?


I don't think I have ever worked on a film where it was what it was when it started. And I think, as a filmmaker, I think if you try to dictate that, then you're straying away from the truth. And, also, the real story is Always much more interesting than what you intended to make.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you end this project with pessimism, hope, or what?

MARGARET BYRNE: I think there's a lot of hope in the end. There's hope.

And I really believe in them. And I hope that this is a story that honors them and shows what value there is in the human capital in our rural communities.

JEFFREY BROWN: The documentary is "Raising Bertie."

Margaret Byrne and Ian Robertson Kibbe, thank you both very much.


IAN KIBBE: Thank you.

MILES O'BRIEN: And you can watch the entire film "Raising Bertie." It premieres later tonight on the PBS documentary series "POV."

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