Among the recent surge of documentaries about education, only a handful have focused on rural schools or issues. One exception was a PBS film that aired last year, “180 Days: Hartsville,” about two schools in a South Carolina school district.
Another rural contender was shown Sunday in Washington as part of the American Film Institute’s AFI DOCS film festival. “Raising Bertie” follows three African-American students from high school into young adulthood in a captivating, if slow-paced, 102-minute film.
Actually, the slow pace of the film by director/producer Margaret Byrne makes the viewer get in time with the rhythms of Bertie County, a very rural area of eastern North Carolina that is home to cotton farms, chicken processing plants, and state prisons.
“Raising Bertie” is a six-year, cinema vérité effort to follow three young men who have faced a range of challenges in school. They are Reginald “Junior” Askew, David “Bud” Perry, and Davonte “Dada” Harrell.
At the start of the film, they are attending an alternative program for suspended students called The Hive. The school’s director gives them name tags that all the students wear.
“We’re going to put ‘Mr.’ in front of your name instead of a DOC [Department of Corrections] number in front of your name” on the name tag, program director Vivian Saunders tells them.
The students are soon making campus visits to two historically black colleges, Norfolk State University and Hampton University, to spark an interest in higher education.
At this point in the film, it’s a bit unclear where the Chicago-based team from Kartemquin films is going with this slow-paced visit to Bertie County. That may just reflect a decision not to have a neatly packaged, narrated film about rural education issues. “Raising Bertie” meanders along a country road.
Soon, The Hive is shut down by the Bertie County school system, for budget reasons we’re told. (Director Byrne apparently set out originally to make a documentary just about The Hive, but the abrupt shutdown of the program force a retooling of the film.)
Junior, Bud, and Dada enroll in a traditional high school. This is when we realize that all three are in grades below their ages. (Bud is 21 and is still held back from his last semester of high school.)
The most dynamic subject is Junior, whose speech is difficult to understand. (So much so that the film uses subtitles at times.) Junior makes some bad choices as he navigates high school and his free time. He drops out of high school, saying, “I took the advice to stop while I wasn’t ahead.” His ride is downgraded from a used car he enjoyed working on to a used bike.
Dada and Bud, against seemingly long odds, do what they have to do to graduate from high school, then help the effort to re-open The Hive in a new setting.
“Raising Bertie” is not a policy-oriented documentary offering prescriptions for rural education in America. It is more of an intimate, unhurried visit to an area unlike the places where most of us live.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.