Garrett Bradley talks ‘TIME’

On Monday, February 22, the Bryn Mawr Film Institute began its Strange Truth 2021 documentary series with a showing of Garrett Bradley’s award-winning film, “TIME” (2020). A talk with the director, Bradley, and moderator, Swarthmore Professor Nina Johnson of the sociology department, followed. Students across the Tri-Co Consortium attended to listen and ask questions on the making of “TIME.” 

Garrett Bradley’s first documentary feature length film, “TIME,” follows Sibil Fox Richardson as she deals with the effects of her husband Rob’s 60-year prison sentence. The film is not strewn with facts of mass incarceration or a detailed explanation of the initial crime, even as it features found footage of Richardson from the 90s. Instead, it is a love story. It is about, in Bradley’s words, “resistance and love being a form of resistance.” Seamlessly blending black and white home videos shot by Richardson with Bradley’s original footage, the 81 minute run-time unfolds on two planes, weaving a narrative that transcends linearity. Deeply moving and intimate, the unique varying of points-of-view highlights the collaborative nature of documentary filmmaking. Even as the last shot cuts to black and Bradley’s name is illuminated as director, I am well aware of whose story is being told: the over 2 million people incarcerated in the United States.

“TIME” premiered worldwide at the Sundance Film Festival last year, at which Bradley won the first of many awards — the U.S. Documentary Award for Directing, making Bradley the first African American woman to win in that category. Bradley is currently up for Outstanding Producer of Documentary Theatrical Motion Pictures (Producer Guild of America Awards) and Best Documentary Feature (Film Independent Spirit Awards), both ceremonies to take place this month and April, respectively. 

Bradley attended Smith College, where she studied religion before earning her MFA in Directing at UCLA. Born in New York City to two abstract painters, Bradley now resides in Los Angeles, a fact that her brightly-lit apartment, which never dimmed as the night went on over Zoom, made clear. Bradley’s short op-doc “Alone” (2017) serves as a precursor of sorts to “TIME. Produced in collaboration with the Sundance Institute Short Documentary Fund and The New York Times, it follows Aloné Watts and her “ongoing isolation because of her partner’s incarceration.”

The Strange Truth 2021 series was initiated by Vicky Funari, a filmmaker and Visual Studies lecturer at Haverford College, twelve years ago. The talk with Bradley was its first time going virtual. Instead of gathering in a darkened theater, hearing the film in simultaneity with the hushed silence of a captive audience, participants could join from anywhere, as I had entered the call in the Pacific time zone. Kate Thomas, another programmer from Bryn Mawr College, introduced Bradley to a group brimming with anticipation. 

“Garrett Bradley is a filmmaker with a unique ability to catch up the filaments of artists, intellectuals, beloveds, who are almost lost to us, to history,” Thomas began. “Garrett’s epoch-making achievement for Black cinema is hugely important, even as her own filmmaking turns lyrically and ethically away from the idea that history is made in any one moment, or by any one film.” 

After introductions were made, it was time for Johnson to ask a few burning questions. She started with one to which we all wanted to know the answer: how did you come to this story? In a country weighed down by the largest incarcerated population by far, how does one pinpoint the family of one of those millions of people? How did Bradley choose Fox Richardson, or how did Fox choose Bradley? 

“Every project that I’ve made, I’ve been really lucky to have had them come out of my real life, and things that are actually happening in true proximity to myself and my own community.” Bradley started. “I didn’t intentionally go out thinking ‘I want to make a film about incarceration.’” So then, how was “TIME” first conjured? 

Documentary filmmaking is less of a creative brainstorm into the fictional, and more of a careful search for a complex story. In the way a wholly original idea for a novel might just spring into one’s head, the subject of a documentary will find the filmmaker in passing. It is imperative that we don’t forget the physicality of these subjects, if we want to call them subjects at all. 

It began when Bradley went to Craigslist to cast one of her shorts, and how she eventually formed deep bonds with these people. One of them was arrested and held awaiting trial for over a year, which is unconstitutional. Bradley was also going through a break-up at the time, which she called a different kind of heartbreak. She began to wonder “what it means to love somebody and not be able to be with them.”  

“For me it was really about trying to think about, once that film had been released, how do I continue the conversation around incarceration, how do we think about the invisibility, and the lack of entry points that exist when we think about incarceration, and how can I fill those gaps. How can I address the absence of a certain way of understanding incarceration in this country?”

Aiming to make another short, Fox Richardson’s story only started to bleed into the realm of feature length when Richardson gave Bradley 100 hours of home videos filmed over the last twenty years. Bradley mentioned she had been unaware of Richardson’s archive until after she had finished her original filming. Upon being asked about the seamlessness of Bradley’s incorporation of those 100 hours of found footage, the intimacy they foster, Bradley spoke of intentionality and Richardson’s role in the making of the film. She would ask herself, “Why does Fox want to make this film with me? What is her intention behind that?”  

It all seemed to boil down to the intentions. Why does “TIME” come across as so different from other documentaries about mass incarceration? Is it the lack of constant phone call scenes, the lack of a hand at the window separating one partner from the other that is incarcerated? In making Richardson a fellow collaborator rather than a subject, intentions become clear. ‘Who is the one in control of the narrative?’ becomes the next question. “[The film is] supposed to be our entry point into understanding them [those that are incarcerated and their families].” 

This is not a purely educational film, or one aimed to pull at the heartstrings of a removed audience. It does not claim innocence or vulnerability.  

“This is actually a film about the effects of the facts, and the facts are really important, and they are things that people need to be made aware of, but the facts themselves can become kind of abstract. 2.3 million people being incarcerated, what does that mean? In your mind can you even see 2.3 million people?” 

“TIME” is merely the story that was meant to be told, as each collaborator intended. It moves forward and backwards and through, going from the 90s to the present in a blink. Fox Richardson is shown in two presents, one without her husband and one with, until at the end of the film these two timelines merge in the release of Rob, her husband. They hug and they kiss and the music plays, until we feel a bit like we exist in that moment too.  

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