‘Raising Bertie’

Published 11:18 am Monday, December 5, 2016

WINDSOR – For the second time in three years, Bertie County students will be featured in a documentary film that has opened to rave reviews on the festival circuit.

First, there was “If You Build It” in 2013 – a documentary filmed on location largely in the town of Windsor and surrounding communities of Bertie County.   

The film told the story of a community finding its own Field of Dreams, hence the title.

It followed a year in the life of an innovative, design-based high school program of Bertie Public Schools students, culminating with the design and 16-week construction of a pavilion that became the Windsor Farmer’s Market located just off W. Waters St.  It is the only one of its kind in the U.S. designed and built by high school students.

Now, coming Saturday, Dec. 10 at Bertie High School Auditorium, with showings at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. is “Raising Bertie”.  Once more, Bertie County is the setting as this new artist’s work offers a six-year portrait of the coming-of-age lives of three young men: Reginald “Junior” Askew, David “Bud” Perry, and Davonte “Dada” Harrell

“Rural minorities like the youth in Bertie represent some of the nation’s most vulnerable and least visible,” said Director/Producer Margaret Byrne. “Like many rural areas, Bertie County struggles with a dwindling economy, a declining population and a high school graduation rate below the state average. The Perdue chicken processing plant is Bertie’s last major employer, and the 27 prisons that lay within a 100 miles of the county cast a long shadow. Bertie County is predominately African American – its challenges compounded by generations of economic and educational discrimination and exclusion.”

A “co-star” of the film is The Hive House, located at103 Mitchell Street in Lewiston-Woodville, and its director, Vivian Saunders.  A facility for at-risk youth in the western part of the county, The Hive also features an after-school program, a summer program, technology center, parental and educational center, domestic violence shelter, and a food pantry.

Originally, Byrne came to Bertie County in 2009 to profile The Hive.  Her plan was to make a short film about the alternative school, but that plan fell apart when the school was shut down due to lack of funding.

Byrne decided to keep filming anyway. In fact, she kept filming for six more years, returning to Bertie County a few weeks or a few months at a time, and gradually shifting the film’s focus to its three subjects.

Askew, Perry, and Harrell all attended The Hive, and the film highlights how the alternative school helped put these young men’s lives back on track.  But, when budget shortfalls led the Bertie County Board of Education to close The Hive, the trio returns to Bertie High School feeling once more supplanted in an education system that failed them.

Without giving too much away, the film shows how the three navigate school, unemployment, violence, first love, fatherhood, and estrangement from family members and mentors, all while trying to figure out individually just exactly who they are. Harrell makes the high school football team and attends the senior prom. Askew visits his biological father in jail, meeting him for the first time since early childhood. Perry becomes a father himself.

The Hive had undergone its own renaissance – from losing the local funding in 2009-10 to generous contributions from local sources, especially Purdue Farms.

“I’ve never done anything like this and it was a new experience,” said Perry, who now works at Smithfield Foods in Virginia. “Sometimes I didn’t want to do it because I wasn’t used to being on camera and I was nervous. (The producers) made me feel comfortable.  I want a lot of kids to see (the film) and see how the Hive started. They’ll see we live in the country and everybody doesn’t have a lot, but we do our best to have a good community.”

“I love people,” said Askew, “I’m a family man. I’m just like everyone else in the world. I may have made bad choices, but I’m not letting those choices determine the outcome of my life. I’m glad I can look back and see my younger days and see how it was for me back then, keeps me on the road I’m on today.”

“The experience of filming (this) was life changing,” notes Harrell. “I grew from a kid who never spoke up for himself to a young man that can speak with confidence. I believe the sky’s the limit. My dream is to go to barber school and own my own business one day.”

In addition to the film’s two showings, a barbecue is also planned for the community at Bertie High following the final viewing at 3:30 p.m.

Raising Bertie has already premiered at film festivals in New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and most recently, Chicago.  Windsor is also not its North Carolina premiere.  It had initial showings at the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham and the Cucalorus Film Festival in Wilmington.

The film also has come out at a pivotal time in American society, say the artists and filmmakers; and this was not entirely by design.

“We didn’t expect, six years ago, that these issues would be where they are today,” said co-producer, Chapel Hill native and UNC alum, Ian Robertson Kibbe. “When you start a project, you don’t know what the world will look like when you’re done. This film is coming out at a very important time in the national conversation we’re having around how we view young black men, and what opportunities there are.”

Partial funding for Raising Bertie was eventually secured from sources including the MacArthur Foundation, Ford Foundation and the Southern Documentary Fund. The project is also co-produced by Kartemquin films, the award-winning Chicago filmmaking collective behind marquee documentary projects like “Hoop Dreams”.

“In editing this story, there were competing pressures: to fight against stereotypes, to tell an exciting story, to tell a story of unexpected success, and to prove that a filmmaker can communicate an honest story about a culture that is not her own,” added Byrne. “The truth is, I made a film about three kids that I met and cared about. I knew their story needed telling. The individuals in this story are representative of their community and they matter.”