Faculty Part of Award-Winning Sundance Documentary

Margaret Byrne

By Brian Kleemann

Margaret Byrne, a former College of DuPage student currently teaching in the Motion Picture/Television program, was recently honored at the Sundance Film Festival as part of the filmmaking team on “American Promise.”

Byrne spent more than eight years as a director of photography on the documentary, which received the Special Jury Award for Achievement in Filmmaking at Sundance, the famed festival that has launched hundreds of films to critical acclaim and mainstream distribution since 1985. “American Promise” centers on filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, who enrolled their 5-year-old son Idris in the Dalton School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in 1999. Idris, his best friend and classmate Seun, and their families are chronicled from the first day of kindergarten through high school graduation as they deal with issues of identity, class and education.

“The film follows two African American boys from middle-class Brooklyn as they attend a highly competitive school on the wealthy Upper East Side at a time when private schools were diversifying their student bodies,” said Byrne, who started working on the movie when the boys were in third grade. “It received acclaim at Sundance for following the same subjects for 14 years, which is rare in a single film. The relationship I have with the families is very unique. Sundance was a great reunion because we stayed in the same house at and celebrated its success together.”

Byrne took an interest in photography as a child when she was fascinated by her family’s home videos. At age 10 she received her first point-and-shoot camera; three years later, her grandfather built a darkroom in the basement of her parents’ home. She later studied photography at College of DuPage.

“I always knew this is what I wanted to do,” she said. “I learned so much when I was at COD. The resources are incredible.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in film from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Byrne embarked on a career in music, television and film that has spanned the globe. She started her own production company 10 years ago, which required her to learn the business of film. Her biggest client for a decade was recording artist Mary J. Blige, and she was creative director and content producer for Blige’s record label, Matriarch.

“My first job in New York was a shooting a behind-the-scenes documentary of Mary and P. Diddy’s reunion album, ‘Love & Life,’” she said. “I was a female filmmaker, which is rare, and we connected with each other.”

Byrne also traveled across Africa in 2005 to help launch MTV on that continent. She then settled in Lagos, Nigeria, and produced music videos. While there, she also married and had a child.

Her latest project is “Raising Bertie,” a documentary that first began in 2009 as a look at an alternative school for at-risk boys in North Carolina.

“I was initially commissioned to produce an honor video for the women who ran the school, but I realized this needed to be bigger,” she said. “Three months into filming, the school shut down, and the project turned into something far more complex. I’ve followed three of the boys for several years, and you see what happens when their support system is taken away. People don’t expect a lot from them, and I want audiences to understand why they are making the choices they are making and the importance of alternative education.”

Now back in Chicago, Byrne is teaching “Editing for Motion Pictures and Television” at COD while trying to secure additional funding and distribution for “Raising Bertie.” She recently received a $120,000 grant for the project through the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which supports independently produced film and video.

“Film is so challenging. There’s a responsibility that comes with being a producer and telling the story,” she said. “But I think I’m really good at filmmaking. I know how to get into a story and understand people on an emotional level.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in Chicago. And while teaching was not in my plans, this is my first semester doing it and it’s great to be back at COD. I love sharing my experiences with my students and ultimately hope that I can inspire them to never give up in their pursuits to become the next generation of filmmakers.”

Click here to find out more about “American Promise.”

For more about the Motion Picture/TV program at College of DuPage, visit www.cod.edu/programs/mptv or call (630) 942-2047.

Caption: Margaret Byrne with the young men featured in her documentary "Raising Bertie."