Raising Bertie is a feature documentary about three African American boys in Bertie County, North Carolina.
Shot over the course of six years, the film focuses on Reginald Askew (“Junior”), Davonte Harrell (“Dada”), and David Perry (“Bud”) as they face the challenges of growing up in the rural South.
The film’s world premiere was held at the 2016 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C., this month. The audience gave several standing ovations following the screening.
We asked Margaret Byrne, director-producer, and Ian Robertson Kibbe, producer, about making Raising Bertie.
TFS: Why were you interested in this particular story?
Margaret: I originally came 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 just 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.
And 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. None of this defined him. I knew the strong man he was. 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.
In the end, the real reason I wanted to tell this story though is that I love these families. It was important to stay connected to them and tell a story that I felt honored the truth of who they were.
TFS: What was the relationship like between the filmmakers and these young men?
Margaret: In longitudinal filmmaking you have the privilege of spending an extensive amount of time with people over a long period, sometimes in their most vulnerable moments.
We watched them grow up and become adults. Jon and I traveled to Bertie to visit and film them regularly, so we’ve been a consistent part of their lives for seven years.
Even now that filming is done, we’re still very close. Jon and I (and now Ian) get regular texts from the guys. I talk to their mothers on the phone frequently, and Vivian and I speak about four times a week! Keke, Dada’s younger cousin stays with me some summers and he and my daughter are like family. I feel incredibly fortunate.
We come from very different places, but we’ve built a relationship on respect and love. My view is that when you tell a story like this, having a real and caring connection to your subjects is vital.
This is a different approach from some filmmakers and certainly from most journalists. But for me as a documentary filmmaker, I only want to tell stories about people I deeply care about and have a connection with.
TFS: Ian, you’re credited as a producer on the film. For those unfamiliar with the role, would you elaborate on some of your responsibilities and how you helped make the film possible?
Ian: The term producer can be confusing, because your roles as a producer can really change depending on the project, the director, and the type of story, documentary or narrative, etc.
Traditionally a producer is responsible for managing lots of the nitty-gritty details all the way from pre-production through post – arranging shoots, finding crew, keeping everyone on track.
On this project I came on board about halfway through shooting. Margaret and Jon (the director of photography) already had the production side of the project pretty down. They were a very small crew and they had already established connections in the area and figured out how to get it done.
So my role on this film was to help move the project into post, build our advisory board of experts, find a composer, a post house, write grants and fill in on other duties when they needed doing, etc. I also had plenty of help with that from Kartemquin (shout out to the KTQ post-team).
But, we wrote tons of grants and took part in a number of programs and labs for the film (IFP Labs, GoodPitch, Cucalorus Works-in-Progress) and I was sort of in charge of getting that going.
I also saw it as my responsibility to really dive into the issues the film explores and bring some of that into the edit room and our conversations. And while this certainly isn’t an advocacy or issue film, Margaret and I both did our best to learn as much as we could about what is going on in rural areas and in particular rural minority communities.
I think you have a responsibility to your subjects and their stories to learn as much as you can about what is going on in their lives, whether or not that’s what the film is explicitly about or not. So, I really worked with a number of outside organizations and experts to become knowledgeable about the issues, and then would bring that into our edit meetings. Leslie Simmer our editor, Gordon Quinn, Kartemquin’s founder, Margaret and I spent a long time in the edit room hashing this all out.
TFS: Ian, in your bio you mention that you have a mixed-race background. How did this influence your work as a producer on this documentary?
Ian: Well, I think it influences everything I do in ways I am sometimes cognizant of and ways I’m not.
I look like a white man, so I wear the skin of privilege when I walk the world and that has had a ton of influence in my life.
But what I look like and what I am are not the same thing. I’ve spent my life thinking about this and how it impacts me and others.
I wrestle constantly with my own internal biases and the conflicts between who I am inside and how I present to the world. It’s a life long journey. I think identity is like that for all of us. But for people of color, they have to deal with these things all the time, and do not have the privilege of passing when it suits them.
How all this specifically influenced the project, is that from very early on I was most interested in the issues in the film that relate to race and identity. I was drawn to trying to understand how the very complicated issues of ancestral trauma, the legacy of slavery, mass incarceration, racial agricultural and labor policies play out in these lives daily in sometimes very nuanced ways. Institutional racism isn’t always as overt as a police shooting; it’s not always that easy to see, but it’s still always there.
I was also interested as a North Carolinian and person who grew up in the South to explore how these issues were compounded by issues that face rural people of all colors. When you add geographic isolation, generational poverty, a lack of job opportunity, broadband internet, etc. into the mix the issues start to blend at the seams. They become more difficult to address and talk about, which is one of the reasons rural minority youth are amongst the nations most vulnerable and least visible.
The talks we’ve been having after screenings are really fascinating and really hard. My hope is that if we can raise the level of conversation to something more complex then we can start dealing with these issues in a deeper and more holistic way.
TFS: The film was shot over the course of six years. What kind of production or technology challenges did you face as a result?
Margaret: We didn’t have big production challenges because of the duration of time we filmed. In some ways it was easier to self finance because we weren’t shooting for four months straight, we were shooting in shorter increments which gave us time to raise money and work other jobs in between shoots.
That said, because Bertie is so rural, if something broke on the camera or a cord went bad, it would take a long time for us to get back up and running because we’d have to have equipment shipped.
We often didn’t have all the equipment we needed because we were such a small low-budget crew, so Junior actually helped on a lot of the shoots. He helped create make-shift lighting design for several interviews and repaired a shoulder mount.
It was fun to work together.
TFS: Since it took six years to make, how was the film funded? What made it particularly attractive to the organizations that supported it?
Ian: We were very fortunate to have a few great funders get involved. MacArthur Foundation, Ford Foundation and Southern Documentary Fund. We also had a number of private donors to the film.
But, we also had a lot of rejection from funders and groups. I think part of that is because the story deals with some very sensitive issues and I think that made some groups nervous about participating.
The other side of this is that part of the reality of documentary filmmaking right now is that there are so many good projects out there and there isn’t enough money going into them. In a way it’s becoming an expensive hobby. You make docs in your spare time and you do all kinds of other work to be able to keep up the hobby.
What this means is that in the future we may find ourselves in a situation where only a small number of people with privilege will be able to make a sustainable career out of it. That’s a problem, because it really begins to impact who is telling who’s stories.
Documentaries have a special power to create transformative change at an emotional and cultural level – to reach people where stats and data cannot. I’m hopeful that more and more people are starting to understand this and that more funding will follow.
But, I encourage anyone who is thinking of starting a documentary to make sure you really care about the people or issues you are addressing. It’s your passion for the story that will carry you when the dollars don’t.
TFS: How did J. Cole get involved as Executive Producer?
Cole originally learned about the project about a year ago while he was on tour with his album Forest Hills Drive. After watching an early rough cut of the film he was struck by how similar his own background was to the young men in the film and he offered to come on as an EP.
He related to the stories of the young men having come from a single mother home in Fayetteville, a community not far from Bertie. Cole hopes the film will raise awareness about the issues young black men face in this country around mass incarceration, institutional racism, and educational equity.
TFS: Ian, you studied communications at UNC-CH. After graduation, did you stay in North Carolina or relocate? How was the state – specifically the Triangle area – changed since you graduated?
Ian: Yikes. It’s changed so much!
I moved to Chicago after graduating to follow a girl (now my wife!), but I’m originally from Carrboro. In college I worked at the Carolina Theater in Chapel Hill, under where Top of the Hill is, but I also remember when that corner was a gas station.
Let’s see, Durham is “cool” now. Chapel Hill not as much. The area has really exploded and changed. Sometimes I worry that development is happening so fast that the area is losing some of the small town/city charm that brought people to it in the first place. Maybe that just makes me sound like a crank.
The area has also become simultaneously more progressive while also being trapped by what I think is a totally insane Republican led legislature. It’s been hard to watch. I often feel guilty that I’ve lived out of state for much of this insanity, but I’ve done my best to stay connected and involved with friends and community. I continue to be a big champion of the region and remain hopeful that despite the legislature, the state will continue to develop and attract really amazing people.
The area has also become an incredible hub for documentary film. The Center for Documentary Studies, Full Frame, Southern Documentary Fund, and all the filmmakers who live there have built this really awesome community for documentary.
There are really engaged audiences who want to watch documentaries and understand their importance. It’s a very special place and everyone involved should be proud of that.
TFS: Any advice for your fellow filmmakers with really big dreams?
Ian: It may sound cliché, but you really just have to keep pushing.
There are so many obstacles you face in making a film; funding, story, cast, crew, time. There will always be a person, a festival, a potential funder, critic, etc., who doubts you.
You have to take each obstacle on, listen to the feedback you’re getting, and not get too bogged down. There will probably be some dark days (some are very dark) and it’s okay to have those, but you need to keep pushing yourself to learn from them and ride the storm out.
Also, find people you like to work with. Film is probably the most collaborative art form and the community you build around a project is going to be what sustains you on the journey.
That said, don’t surround yourself with people who think just like you. You need to include people who will push you to be better. It’s a tough balance and a long road.
Just keep walking it.
TFS: If people missed the film at Full Frame, where can they find the movie?
Right now we’re playing festivals and starting to do some community screenings. Hopefully we’ll have a broadcast in the coming year and then a digital release!
Thank you so much for having us and asking us great questions!
ABOUT MARGARET BYRNE
Margaret Byrne has worked in documentary and television for 15 years. She was a director of photography and editor for Emmy nominated American Promise (2013), a thirteen-year feature film following the education of two African American boys from New York City. Margaret edited Slaying Goliath (2008), Winner of 2008 Best Documentary at the LA Black Film Festival, a feature film following an inner city youth basketball team. Margaret lived and worked in Lagos, Nigeria, at which time she produced and edited a television series, “MTV Base 100th Live” which launched MTV across Africa in 2005. She was a Creative Director at Universal Music and directed live concerts and music videos for artists such as Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige. She is the founder of Beti Films.
Ian Robertson Kibbe is a North Carolina native who has spent the past six years working at, and with Kartemquin in Chicago. His work has appeared on PBS, NPR, CNN, Time and Huffington Post. In addition to producing Raising Bertie, Ian was the engagement coordinator for the award-winning PBS documentary, The Calling, its companion campaign, What’s Your Calling and the Emmy nominated, Typeface. Ian is also multi-racial, Caucasian and Afro-Caribbean. His diverse background and upbringing shape how he views his work. His ability to identify with many different audiences makes him an empathetic and highly effective storyteller.