Interviews

Hot Docs 2021 Women Directors: Meet Margaret Byrne – “Any Given Day”

Margaret Byrne is an award-winning filmmaker. She directed and produced “Raising Bertie,” a feature documentary following the lives of three African American boys growing up in rural North Carolina. She is currently in production on “Fighting Time,” a series that follows a former Chicago homicide detective and dozens of Latino and Black men that allege they were framed with murders they didn’t commit. She has worked as a cinematographer on over a dozen films including “Surge,” “Waging Change,” “All the Queen’s Horses,” and “American Promise.” She is the founder of Beti Films, an all-women film collective based in Chicago.

Any Given Day” is screening at the 2021 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, which takes place April 29-May 9. The fest is digital this year due to COVID-19. Streaming is geo-blocked to Canada.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

MB: “Any Given Day” is a longitudinal film that follows the experiences of three people — Angela, Daniel, and Dimitar — as they navigate receiving mental health treatment in a specialized probation program. The film also reveals my personal struggles with mental illness, and shows just how uncertain life with mental illness can be.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

MB: After half of the mental health clinics in Chicago closed, Cook County Jail became the largest mental health treatment facility in the country. When I began the film, I knew I wanted to focus on the perspective of people with mental illness that were navigating the criminal justice system. I started filming at the Cook County Jail, following their mental health intake process and filming with a few detainees that were receiving treatment.

Some detainees participated in diversion programs that offered an opportunity to expunge their record. I began observing one of these programs, the Cook County mental health court, a two-year probation that mandates and oversees defendant’s treatment. That’s where I met Angela, Daniel, and Dimitar.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

MB: I want people to feel encouraged to talk about their mental health more openly and I want people to question the systems we have in place to treat people with mental illness.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

MB: Logistically, the biggest challenge was finding the main stories in the film. I spent several months filming at the jail and observing mental health court. I filmed with over a dozen people before I settled on the stories of Angela, Daniel, and Dimitar.

Emotionally, the biggest challenge was including myself in the film. Initially I didn’t think I’d be in the film, but then I realized if the film was about how people live with this everyday, then it was about me too.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

MB: I received a development grant from Illinois Public Media and then self funded the film through most of the shooting process. About three years into production, I received funding from ITVS through their open call.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

MB: I got my first point-and-shoot camera when I was 11 and I’ve been taking pictures ever since. Filmmaking is how I have found my family, my community, and a deeper connection to the world.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

MB: The worst advice I’ve gotten is to “be more commercial.” Money doesn’t make great movies — people do.

The best advice I’ve gotten is to keep control of your projects.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

MB: Be persistent and don’t give up. Talk to other filmmakers. Build your community. Find a mentor, and be a mentor.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

MB: One of my favorite films that I watched for inspiration while making “Any Given Day” is Agnès Varda’s “The Beaches of Agnès.” I was questioning how to put myself in the film, and I was feeling very uncomfortable about including my own story. Watching that film helped me to relax and encouraged me to let go of some of my own hesitations because it is Varda’s vulnerability, honesty, and freedom to explore that make her films so brilliant.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

MB: I’ve been keeping busy during the pandemic. I’m teaching remotely at Columbia College Chicago and College of DuPage. I’ve been working on my next project, “Fighting Time,” a series that follows a former Chicago homicide detective and dozens of Latino and Black men that allege they were framed with murders they didn’t commit.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

MB: I am encouraged by the work of Beyond Inclusion and their recent open letter to PBS. We need to continue to have honest and constructive conversations as part of our practice. We need to continue to hold institutions accountable and demand transparency around programming and staff.

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