"I always tell my students," DuPage County native Margaret Byrne said, "if I can do it, you can do it."
Byrne did it.
She made her new documentary, "Raising Bertie," while being a single parent and on public aid for two years.
"Public aid was critical to me," she said, "and critical for my project. I was working other jobs at the time, but none of them paid anything substantial."
Byrne had divorced her husband and in 2009 dove headlong into directing and producing "Raising Bertie," a project that took seven years to complete. It opens Friday.
"Raising Bertie" (pronounced "berTEE") follows three black teens struggling to grow up in rural Bertie County of North Carolina, an impoverished area that, as we learn, hosts 27 prisons within a 100-mile radius.
Byrne had heard about a North Carolina alternative school for at-risk boys called The Hive and set out to create a documentary about it, taking her young daughter, Violet, with her to film. The school closed, but three of the students became Byrne's focus -- and close friends.
Byrne ended up following the three students for seven years. She won a MacArthur Foundation Grant in 2013, which eased the financial strain.
She moved to Elmwood Park as Violet grew older. Her parents, Raymond Byrne of Westchester and Mary Byrne of Naperville, provided crucial support to their daughter and her project. "I am here because of my family," the filmmaker said. "I can't say I would be here without them."
Byrne grew up in Westchester and attended Nazareth Academy in LaGrange. At 15, she and her family moved to Naperville, where she graduated from Naperville Central High School in 1996.
She spent two years studying photography at College of DuPage, then earned a bachelor of fine arts in film from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She moved to New York, where a chance encounter with a stranger on the subway altered her life. They both carried the same model of camera and struck up a conversation.
Through him, Byrne got connected with a producer who worked with rapper Sean "Puffy" Combs. Through Combs, she met singer and songwriter Mary J. Blige and worked with her for 10 years, creating music videos and bios.
Byrne made "Raising Bertie" after serving as editor and director of photography on "American Promise," which covered 13 years in the lives of two black boys from New York City.
"Their lives are just as important (as other teens' lives). These kids have spent their lives being told they're not important," said Byrne, who teaches documentary filmmaking at the College of DuPage and documentary cinematography at Chicago's Columbia College. "To me, it's about telling stories about people who aren't in the spotlight. And they are stories that nobody else is going to tell."
"Raising Bertie" was edited and produced through Chicago's prestigious Kartemquin Films, maker of "Hoop Dreams," "The Interrupters" and other noted nonfiction features.
It will be shown at 8 p.m. Friday through Wednesday, Nov. 23, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago. See siskelfilmcenter.org/raisingbertie.
Byrne drew a line between regular journalists who seek to cover a story and filmmakers like her who follow the same people over a large expanse of time.
"It's important that you spend time with people when you're working on a project that will involve them for seven years," Byrne said. "It's really about spending time when the camera's off.
"You do develop close relationships with people. I can't help but affect their lives when I come around every so often, asking them questions and encouraging them to do things, and being a voice in their lives."
Why, we wondered, do long-form documentaries such as "Hoop Dreams," "The Lost Boys of Sudan," "American Promise" and "Raising Bertie" tend to favor male stories over female stories?
"That's a very good question," she said. "I never thought of that before. 'Raising Bertie' started as a story about an alternative school, the Hive, for at-risk boys, so there were no girls. If there had been, I would have certainly followed a girl as well."
Originally, "American Promise" followed two girls along with the two boys, but they dropped out of the movie when they reached the fourth grade.
Being part of a movie for such a long time requires a huge commitment from the subjects and their families, Byrne pointed out.
So does making a movie over such a long time, Byrne said, with a nod to her own family.
"They have always supported me. Them encouraging me to go out and do things on my own was very important to me."
-- Dann Gire
• Jamie Sotonoff and Dann Gire are looking for suburbanites in showbiz who would make good stories. Contact them at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.