The independent documentary Raising Bertie, filmed in fits and starts over the course of six years, is essentially a coming-of-age movie. Shot in Bertie County, in the rural, eastern part of North Carolina, the film tracks the lives of three young black men as they grow from their teenage years into adulthood. It's one of the best movies you'll see this year.
Filmmaker Margaret Byrne made the movie more or less by accident. Initially intended to be a profile of The Hive, an alternative high school program for at-risk youth, the focus shifted when funding for the school dried up. Byrne kept filming anyway, returning to Bertie County every few months when she could scrape up enough funding to afford a trip.
The result is an intimate chronicle of growing up in a small, impoverished rural community in twenty-first-century America. The young men we meet—Reginald "Junior" Askew, David "Bud" Perry, and Davonte "Dada" Harrell—must navigate the typical hazards of adolescence: young love, problems at school, that shitty first car. But, due to circumstances beyond their control, they face a terribly bleak future. Bertie County is one of America's forgotten places, the kind you keep reading about in election coverage. If you want to stick with your family and your hometown, job opportunities are limited to fast food, the cotton fields, or the pork-processing plant.
"It's like you ain't even here," Junior says, skipping stones at sunset, in the film's central image. This is the beauty of Raising Bertie: Byrne tells her stories in rigorous cinéma vérité style. There is no voice-over narration, no framing of the topic, no on-screen statistics regarding poverty and systemic racism. This isn't an Issue Film, just an artful procession of people, dialogue, and images.
Raising Bertie premiered at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham last year. Two screenings at the Chelsea this weekend, which feature Q and A sessions with producer and Chapel Hill native Ian Kibbe, are part of a limited nationwide release following the film's success on the festival circuit. It's also been been picked up for an August 28 digital release and broadcast premiere on PBS.
When I first saw the film at Full Frame, I remember being surprisingly moved. It's the proximity, I think. Bertie County is about 150 miles from the Triangle, but having spent my life drenched in mass media, I know more about Manhattan than I do about rural eastern North Carolina—and I've never been to Manhattan. This accomplished piece of filmmaking—insightful, raw, and visually beautiful—is also a chance to meet your neighbors.This article appeared in print with the headline "Near to Impossible."