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"Raising Bertie" Premieres At Full Frame Documentary Film Festival

Reginald Askew
Kartemquin Films
Reginald "Junior" Askew is one of the young men featured in the documentary, 'Raising Bertie.'

Thousands of documentary film-lovers are in Durham this week for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.  Close to 100 films from around the world will be featured, but one film in particular hits close to home.

The documentary “Raising Bertie” will have its world premiere at the festival.  It follows the lives of three struggling young men in Eastern North Carolina.

It’s easy to get fixated on this journey through rural Bertie County.  The documentary film begins with an African American teenager riding a bicycle, it looks like for miles.  Reginald Askew pretty much built it himself.  Friends and family call him “Junior.”

“I got to get my life together, you know what I’m saying. I applied for so many damn jobs and they didn’t even call me back.  All I need is a job, if I get any type of job I know I can make it," said Askew.

Askew is smart beyond his years, but not book smart.  He tries over and over to finish high school, but soon has to drop out because he’s too old, about to turn 21.

“I had failed one semester, then I was going to fail the next semester and I took the advice to stop while I was ahead, or stop while I wasn’t ahead," said Askew.

Margaret Byrne is the Director of “Raising Bertie.”

“It’s been seven years and my life has totally changed from when I started," said Byrne.

In the early years, “Raising Bertie” was self-funded.  It was just Byrne and her photography director zooming down from New York to Bertie County to capture the ups and downs of Junior’s life and that of two of his friends.  Soon the rawness of this intimate story began to capture the attention of big funders.

“One thing that’s really important is, I’m not a typical documentary director.  I am a single mother on public aid, and I really felt it was important that this film was made at their eye level," said Byrne.

Like at the level of a young man named David Perry, whom they call “Bud.”

“I thought about it, dropping out of school and just working on a farm.  But I didn’t want to stay on no farm for the rest of my life," said Perry.

And then there’s Davonte Harrell, known as “DaDa.”  This big high school football player has a quiet demeanor.  His big brother is one of the biggest drug dealers in town and stays in and out of jail.  “DaDa” is years behind in school and his parents have split up.

“But I wish I could see my Mama and Daddy back together. And I was asking like, why he don’t call me.  Hurt," said Harrell.

The fact of the matter is there are several Bertie Counties in pockets across the South.  This Bertie County is small and shrinking.  Almost two-thirds of the residents are African American.  The median household income is just under $30,000.

Ian Robertson Kibbe is the Producer of “Raising Bertie.” Kibbe says he wants people to know issues of rural education, the school to prison pipeline and economic development are real–and so are young men like “Junior.”

“If he were born somewhere else maybe, and had more access, or had the mentorship, different zip code, different color, who knows where he would be.  He’s got all the tools," said Kibbe.

An important part of the film shows the work of community activist Vivian Saunders who was instrumental in opening an alternative school for at-risk boys in Bertie County.  Saunders says she wants Mr. in front of the boys’ names, instead of a Department of Correction number.

“We are a quarter of a mile from the jail.  And I often tell the boys you got a choice. You can be educated at 117 County Farm Road or you can be educated at 219 County Farm Road, take your choice," said Saunders.

Kartemquin Films, known for award-winning documentaries like “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters” also produced “Raising Bertie.” So you just may catch it sometime soon.  It’s already sold out at Full Frame.

Leoneda Inge is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Leoneda has been a radio journalist for more than 30 years, spending most of her career at WUNC as the Race and Southern Culture reporter. Leoneda’s work includes stories of race, slavery, memory and monuments. She has won "Gracie" awards, an Alfred I. duPont Award and several awards from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA). In 2017, Leoneda was named "Journalist of Distinction" by the National Association of Black Journalists.
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