A Matter of 'Time': Director Garrett Bradley on Making the Year's Best Documentary
At the tail end of Time — the feature-length documentary that, since its heralded Sundance debut last year, has deservedly made its director, Garrett Bradley, one of the film world’s women of the hour — an extraordinary thing happens. The movie follows a black family living in the shadow of incarceration. At the center of that family is Sibil Richardson, known as Fox Rich, whose husband, Robert, is serving a 60-year sentence for a crime the two of them committed when they were young, newly married, and desperate. The film is a stunning, surprising mix of present-tense footage (filmed by Bradley and others) and video diaries Rich has been compiling over the course of 21 years — footage shot to show Robert all that he’s missing of his wife and kids while in prison. But then, in the end, comes the moment the two threads merge: Robert is released. And a film that has to that point been almost entirely defined by the man’s absence disarms us with his presence — and with the cosmic, all-consuming, full-body kind of love that makes justice feel possible. Robert and Fox do exactly what you’d expect them to do. They reclaim the intimacy that incarceration has denied. They have sex. Right there, during the ride home, in the back seat. With the camera rolling.
Speaking by Zoom from the sunny Los Angeles apartment that’s become her home away from home for much of the pandemic, Bradley explains just how she got Fox and Robert to allow her so far into the tragedy, to say nothing of the intimacy, of their lives. A serious artist who does not take herself too seriously, she makes it sound pretty simple: “I was in the car behind them,” she says, instructing her camerawoman, Nisa East, who was hunched in the front passenger seat of Robert and Fox’s car. East wondered what to do. “I was like, ‘Girl, just shoot that shit in slow motion, and be in tune with them. Make eye contact with them,’ ” Bradley recounts. “‘They’ll let you know when it’s time to turn the camera off.’ ” But Bradley also sensed — rightly — that Fox and Robert were in a world of their own.
Trust, then, is the answer. Bradley trusts her collaborators. And she goes out of her way to earn the trust of her subjects.
Born in New York to artist parents, Bradley studied religion at Smith College and film at UCLA, with sudden, spirited travels to the South, specifically Louisiana, to delve into its steep sense of history and implication. She became a filmmaker almost by chance — a high school teacher encouraged her early on to submit a film to a festival, and, to her surprise, she won. The validation was overwhelming. “I really struggled academically,” she says, “and it was the very first time someone had said to me, ‘You’re really good at this. You should keep doing this.’ Image-making for me was like, ‘Oh, I can communicate, and I can find a way to communicate with the world.’ ”
What she has communicated across her career thus far, which includes a handful of short films, a fiction feature shot in Louisiana (her thesis film), and now Time, is a nimble curiosity about the role of images in shaping, or obscuring, the reality of human experience — spiritual, political, racial, and beyond. Bradley is that rare mix: an experimenter whose work makes incredible sense and yields unnerving power. Her documentary shorts — among them Alone (2017), another film about a young woman whose partner is imprisoned — have typically drawn financial support from journalistic institutions such as The New York Times’ Op-Docs and First Look Media’s Field of Vision. They are films that do the work expected of them in that context, taking some newsy cultural dilemma familiar from headlines (incarceration, for example, or, in the case of Like, the Facebook “click” industrial complex) and rendering it in unusually interior terms. Bradley gives you the news, but she also tends to give you something more: the fraught, unnameable feelings underlying those factual bullet points.
This is, in part, simply practical. “The first paid opportunities that I got to make a film were through these journalistic platforms,” Bradley says. “And there was no way in hell I was going to say, ‘No, I’m not a journalist. No, I don’t make documentaries.’ ” Nor does she go out of her way to treat this funding like an artistic imperative. She finds a coherent, personal vision within these frameworks. “If someone is giving me money to make something, I’m going to do the best that I can to do it on my terms, the way that I think is interesting within the parameters I’m being given.” Ultimately, Bradley says, it “was the only way I was going to get my foot in the door and to be able to make something that people could see.”
As her own work more than implies, Bradley’s approach is hardly limited to the practical. If anything, making aesthetically rich nonfiction that surpasses infotainment has motivated her to think more deeply: about images, about what nonfiction even means (or doesn’t). “I think we have this idea in journalism and in documentary filmmaking that in order for something to be real, in order for it to be the truth, we need to see people in moments of weakness,” she says. “We need to see them losing, we need to see them crying, breaking down, revealing things that maybe they wouldn’t [normally] reveal, in a bedroom somewhere. And in my mind, I’m really invested in what it means to lean into the way people present themselves in the world, and that that is also a truth. That doesn’t take away from my power as a filmmaker.”
The truth is paying off. Time was acquired by Amazon Studios after Sundance and has been feted by critics and audiences alike; in February, it made the Oscars’ documentary feature shortlist. Bradley’s next project, which is already in progress, is a Netflix docuseries on another woman of the hour: the whip-smart, unabashedly political tennis star Naomi Osaka. Given the through lines of Bradley’s work — of history, images, blackness, justice — one can only imagine where such a project will go. It will undoubtedly strike, again, at the truths of her work, the essence of which, as she puts it, gets “at the heart of what justice looks like and the complexity of what justice is.”
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