Director: Margaret Byrne
Running Time: 1:37
Release Date: 6/9/17 (limited); 6/16/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 15, 2017
Margaret Byrne's Raising Bertie is a testament to patience, empathy, and a willingness to allow the subjects and the material to define the form of a documentary, not the other way around. There's no agenda here. There's little interference on the part of the filmmakers, save for the trouble of how a camera's presence may consciously or subconsciously affect the people in front of it. Byrne's sole intention is to observe. Considering the changes in the lives of the film's subjects from when the film begins and when it ends, she has made some major sacrifices in terms of what the film likely was supposed to be in order to maintain that purpose.
The film covers six years in the lives of three young men from Bertie County, North Carolina. At the start, they are still teenagers, and all of them attend the same alternative school, called the Hive. None of them could last in an ordinary public school for an assortment issues that have resulted in them getting into fights.
None of their fathers is still in the picture: Two have left their families for different lives, and one is in prison. The fathers come back at various stages in each of the young men's lives at one point, making one wonder if the fathers' absences were for the better. Byrne leaves such judgments for us, because the scope of time and change here must have been overwhelming in the moment and in the process of editing for her to make any comment on what happens to these young men.
The sense of objectivity goes to an extreme in one scene, when one of the subjects, who has become involved in a local gang, accompanies the gang's leader to beat up a man who owes him money. The person behind the camera says nothing throughout the planning stage, the drive over to the man's house, or upon arriving for the attack (except to assuage the guy's suspicion about why a camera is suddenly on his driveway). There's a good ethical question embedded here, but that's for filmmakers to discuss amongst themselves. The result here is we have a tangible understanding of how far the young man's life has fallen and the dangers he's prone to if he keeps going in this direction.
It all starts with optimism, though. The boys, at that point in the film, are Reginald ("Junior"), Davonte ("Dada"), and David ("Bud"). They're students at the Hive, which focuses on students who have fallen through the cracks of the education system. The atmosphere is alive and positive, with the students reciting a pledge to their abilities and potential at the start of each day. There's a personal touch, too, such as the way that Vivian Saunders, the school's founder, accompanies Davonte to his grandmother's funeral, because his father doesn't want his mother there.
We can sense Byrne's initial objective here: to examine how the school can benefit this community and these students, using the case studies of the three teenagers as evidence. Indeed, a significant portion of the film is about this particular time in their lives. She interviews Saunders, and she interviews the head of the local school board, who praises the Hive's work.
Then, out of the blue, Saunders is fighting for the school's future, holding a meeting with parents, and the praise from the man with the school board has turned to budgetary concerns. Surely, he thinks, the public school system can provide the same services for the same or a lower cost.
Everything is suddenly uncertain for these young men. In terms of the film, what's lost is the structure of its established narrative. Some filmmakers might have given up at this point, changed the film's argument from one of hope to defeat, and put together the material that they have for, perhaps, a short film.
Byrne, though, is not such a filmmaker. The stories of the young men continue, as they try to adjust to the environment of a public school, hindered by the fact that they have started their studies more than a week late because of the decision to close the Hive. At this point, they're older, and they're all placed in grades where they are likely the oldest students in them.
The Hive's learning structure was more precisely targeted to each, individual student. Here, Reginald, Davonte, and David have to catch up with the classwork and become an anonymous part of their fellow classroom. The only time anyone seems to notice them is when they act out in some way, whether it's David adjusting the room's thermostat or Reginald knocking things off the teacher's desk. Eventually, David is on probation, having to check in regularly with a parole officer, because he brings a weapon to school after thinking that one of his fellow classmates has disrespected him.
We can call this behavior a cry for help, but that makes it sound a bit too simplistic. They're crying out for attention, respect, and recognition, among other things. Byrne continues to chronicle their lives for another few years, and themes and similarities emerge: academic struggle, difficulty finding work, girlfriends, unexpected fatherhood, and familial upheaval. Each of the young men has plans for his life. Those plans are in a constant state of disruption, and every time, the young men say that, this time, they're really going to get their lives in order.
They clearly want to, which makes it heartbreaking. The filmmakers of Raising Bertie keep their distance and objectivity here, but that doesn't make the film any less empathetic. It might be more so, because we get a clear picture of this place, these people, and those struggles.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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