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Raising Awareness in 'Raising Bertie'
August 28, 2017  | By Roger Catlin

[Editor’s note: Today, TVWW welcomes yet another excellent writer, and veteran TV critic, to the fold: Roger Catlin, formerly of the Hartford Courant, who now writes for Smithsonian magazine and other publications, including his own website at rogercatlin.com.  Another good writer, and good person, jumps into our sandbox to play. Welcome, Roger! Meet our very smart, extremely friendly readers. - DB]

Shooting a documentary cinéma vérité style sometimes means that it doesn’t end up the way you planned.

Filmmaker Margaret Byrne went to rural Bertie County in northeast North Carolina to profile the work of Vivian Saunders, a community worker who took it upon herself to help at-risk young men there with an alternative school, succeeding in part because she cared so much about the students, treated them like family and had an expectation of achievement. 

But when the school superintendent closed down the Hive, as the school was called, to save money, Byrne continued to follow the story — in particular, those of three young men, each struggling in their own way.

Once in the public school, and now much older than the rest of the population, the boys floundered. The teachers there didn’t have time for nurturing.

As Byrne demonstrates in her eye-opening film Raising Bertie, premiering Monday on PBS’ documentary showcase POV (10 p.m. ET, check local listings), the seed of self-determination helped each of the three eventually find a way to a self-sufficient life.

And what began as a short film on a single alternative school program turned into a six-year project marking the change in each young man: Reginald “Junior” Askew, first seen riding his bicycle down an empty county road, with dreams of a car; Davonte “Dada” Harrell, who has a gentle touch with a nephew and wants nothing more than to be a barber; and David “Bud” Perry, who has to deal with anger issues as he tries to graduate and help support a daughter.

Byrne says she spent another two years editing the film, to ensure the good as well as the bad provided a balanced picture of the sometimes bleak life in a rural county where poverty can be high.

Talk about the forgotten man; portraits of these young men, struggling in earnest to do better than the single-mother homes in which they were raised, are rare anywhere on TV.

Things don’t look optimistic for their entrance into the wider world, if only because somebody felt a lot of their dialogue in the film needed to be subtitled in order to be understood.

Still, by keeping talking heads — and most authority figures outside of moms, Saunders, and other teachers — out of the film and letting the young men speak and dream of their futures, glimmers of hope and an indomitable spirit shine through, even in the bleakest prospects.

Junior, Bud, and Dada are not the kind of people you’ll forget very soon, and that’s just the way it should be if viewers keep mindful of the James Baldwin quote that starts the film: “I am what time, circumstance, history have made of me, certainly, but I am also so much more than that. So are we all.”

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