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Margaret Byrne's empathetic, thought-provoking RAISING BERTIE begins with a rushing road. A teenager, Reginald ("Junior"), comes bicycling towards us. The film introduces us to him and two other young African-American males living in Bertie County, North Carolina, and over the next hour and a half we get to know them. To make this film, Byrne ensconced herself in the community for six years, reminding me of the way Barbara Kopple settled into HARLAN COUNTY, U.S.A. We watch these boys grow into men, sharing in their hopes, dreams and struggles. Thus, RAISING BERTIE deserves a place beside the great achievements in longitudinal film, from Michael Apted's UP series to Richard Linklater's BOYHOOD to Steve James's HOOP DREAMS. It upholds the worthy tradition of social-issues filmmaking as practiced by Frederick Wiseman, Albert and David Maysles, Gordon Quinn, and Chicago's own Kartemquin Films, which produced. It's also fair to say that it makes us think anew about some of the problems inherent to cinéma vérité. 

We hear a lot about at-risk urban youth, less of their rural counterparts. Rarer still is an approach that values what these young men feel—in a word, that treats these lives as if they matter. After all, our culture teaches young men to keep it all in. While the cliché is that these men are not "articulate," in fact there is a music to their language. The film often subtitles their speech, for the benefit of we outsiders who don't have an ear for it.

Junior has a great smile that, in a flash, can turn into a grimace. David (“Bud”) is a generally good-natured young man with a volatile temper. He works with his dad, who runs a landscaping business tending to the big houses on the wealthier side of town, and he also drives a tractor in the cotton fields. Davonte (“DaDa,” pronounced with long A's) is a quiet fellow who wants be a barber.   

At the outset, Junior says something that gives us an idea of how innocent he is —how he's just a kid—but also of of the adult, ugly realities he faces. He says that when he grows up he wants to be rich, so he thought about selling drugs. However, he never really wanted to; plus, his mother says she'll whup him. So maybe he'll just be a "secret agent." (Or, failing that, a mechanic.) He likes living in Bertie and "smelling the corn."  

Bertie's population is 80% black. There's not a lot to do for work or recreation. There are, however, a lot of opportunities to get into trouble. As a title advises, there are 27 prisons within a 100-mile radius of Bertie County. In fact, DaDa's brother, who boasts the memorable sobriquet "Mickey Mouse," is locked up. His brother is, DaDa admits, something of a kingpin among local drug dealers. DaDa and his mom, Esther, care for Mickey Mouse's baby while he's in jail. 

DaDa, Bud and Junior attend an alternative high school called the Hive, expressly set up to meet the needs of black boys. Vivian Saunders, the kindly executive director, wants to pull suspended boys off the streets and back into the school system, while giving them the "love and caring" they don't get there. "I tell them they can be educated at the Hive or be educated in jail," says Saunders. While DaDa is bright—he has a nice ironic sense of humor—he's always required extra time for his schoolwork. The Hive makes him feel like he can learn. When the school board shuts the Hive down, the boys awkwardly integrate into the official Bertie High. Saunders worries, have we given them the tools to survive without getting in trouble? She offers an interesting analysis of the role of violence in these young men's lives: "It goes back to being a tenant farmer," she says. "They have to prove themselves through violence and joining gangs."

The violence seems to spring, as well, from a fierce disinclination to be looked down upon—to be "disrespected."

Violence can be passed down. Junior's mom Cheryl is a survivor of domestic violence at the hands of Junior's dad, who went on to murder a subsequent girlfriend (and a deputy). One of the movie's most heartbreaking scene is the one where Junior visits him in prison. Even Bud's dad, the hardworking landscape architect, beat him until he "peed himself," according to Bud, as a method of discipline. 

Seen in the background in a shot at Bertie High School is a banner reading, "Children learn what they live." 

Cheryl, Junior's mom, works three jobs, yet she still eventually loses the house. Esther, Dada's mom, is estranged from his dad, Ernest, who comes off as a rather self-centered man with a drinking problem. Movingly, DaDa still yearns for his approval and attention. Veronica, Bud's mom, is a cherubic, religious woman who works at the chicken processing plant. 

Byrne's mode is that of the observer-documentarian in the cinéma vérité tradition. She does not appear on camera or interject; there's no narration. Her camera is unobtrusive, if not quite invisible. Her subjects address it. Early in the film, Junior, taking a quiz for a job application, asks the camera for help figuring out "How much is that?" (No answer is forthcoming.) On the other hand, sometimes they forget about it altogether. Junior kisses his girlfriend, Tomekia. When she calls his attention to the camera, he says, "Aw shit, I didn't see that."
All documentary filmmakers wrestle with issues of the filmmaker's responsibility and the conflicts of interest between subject, film and audience. Byrne's navigation of these tensions is thoughtful and sensitive. It's marked by a real kinship with these young men, a trust I assume was hard-won, surmounting differences of class, race and gender.
Writing about Richard Leacock, David Thomson astutely observed that cinéma vérité "has tended to founder on the everyday and mundane. Secretly, it has the journalist's uneasy lust for disaster or breakdown, for the moment when the subject 'cracks.'" There's really only one scene where I wondered if the interests of the filmmakers and the interests of the subjects perhaps diverged a bit. We pile into a car as the boys, restless and buzzed, go out looking for trouble. The find another group with whom they have a beef. When a fight breaks out, the camera looks on. The scene got me thinking about the duty to intervene, the camera as catalyst, the cinéma vérité tradition wherein the director is meant to "just film what happened."  
RAISING BERTIE then, is a construction, an organization of time, a mosaic made with grace and artistry. Byrne gives us beautiful compositions, painterly shots of the squat trailers, clotheslines, cotton and lettuce fields, and the little downtown. There are nuances: after a scene where DaDa's dad disappoints him regarding promised money for new shoes for prom, Byrne cuts to a shot of shiny new shoes on DaDa's feet on prom night. The wistful score provides a melancholy counterpoint to the action, with reverberating guitars, keyboard washes, and plunked piano.  
We watch Bud, now a 20-year-old senior, becoming an angry man. He seems on his way to being a bully, or worse. He gets caught with a "shank." He rallies, though: I won't forget him proudly displaying the senior class project he worked so hard on, about being a landscape architect. DaDa, as a 16-year-old freshman, finds that Bertie High is less inclined to afford him the extra time he needs for his work. We share his joy when he finally graduates. Junior, feeling lost, becomes a 19-year-old junior, then a 20-year-old repeating a grade; finally, he drops out. 
We see him at twilight, skipping stones down the road he once bicycled. He opines that sometimes, "It's like you ain't even here."
Near the end, there is a scene in which Junior keeps feeding dollars into an amusement game where you try to grab an iPod with a claw. The game is rigged: what you want is always going to be just out of your grasp. Yet he keeps playing, always hoping the result will be different. It would be easy to find all sorts of metaphors—for Junior's resiliency, for American society—here. What it shows me is that he hopes. And there is hope. Saunders secures funding to re-open the Hive, and as the film ends a new generation of kids files in.
When we leave Bud, DaDa and Junior, they're shouldering adult responsibilities. Bud's a father; DaDa and Junior are on the cusp of fatherhood. They're going to be good dads, we know it. We feel like they're going to make it—though we've also come to see how it could all go away for them in an instant. We wish them the best, and those of us lucky enough to be born into more privileged circumstances might reflect upon the grit it took for them to rise above their challenges, and what could be done to make American life a little more equitable. We also feel like we've experienced a film with something like the grain and complexity of real life.  
It ends as it began: looking down that road in Bertie, North Carolina. 

RAISING BERTIE begins its run on June 16 at Black World Cinema at the Studio Movie Grill Chatham (210 87th St.) – Check the venue website for showtimes. The filmmakers will be in person at the weekend screenings. 

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