This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes Garrett Bradley, director of the documentary “Time,” which was nominated for a Spirit Award for best documentary. Bradley was named best director of a documentary at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival for “Time.” The film follows Fox Rich, a wife, mother, and activist as she tries to secure her husband’s release from prison after he had served over 20 years for robbery. In their conversation, Bradley discusses the multiple, complicated meanings of time in her film. She talks about her decision to make the film in black and white and how when Rich surprised Bradley with hours of home movies, it completely changed the film.
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest, director Garrett Bradley, has made a short documentary into a new art form. And she extended that talent and expertise with her feature film "Time," which debuted about a year ago at the Sundance Film Festival and is still continuing to astonish people. First of all, let's talk about the title "Time" because it exists in your film as both an abstraction and a real marker of life going by.
Garrett Bradley: I actually feel like titling things, for me, is one of the hardest parts of making a film because it's so definitive. And it's something that every part of my body wants to work against. I'm really more interested in the expansiveness of what films can do and the possibilities that can exist out of that. And "Time" came to me out of that conundrum, out of that resistance.
What I appreciated about the word itself was that clearly it was an integral part of the story and an integral element to how the Richardsons as a family were existing in the world. But it also didn't necessarily elicit an image. I mean, there's the clock, which was brought by England to India, in the 1860s, as a symbol of oppression, as sort of a weapon, a thing to control our days. Suddenly someone is late or on time. And it is actually destroyed, I think, in the 1890s as a form of resistance against this. So time and the clock have been weaponized for centuries. So it, to me, was a way to speak to all these histories and to the way in which the abstractness and the elusiveness of time exists, but also maybe even in a really concrete way, at the same time.
KCRW: I think it is definitely doing that because one of the things that we do with a camera, as Fox your protagonist shows us, is that we use it as a way to mark time, to also memorialize time. I find myself thinking, as I've seen your shorts, and then seeing "Time," of Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep." I wonder if that was an influence on you at all.
Bradley: Oh, absolutely. I think what they call the LA Rebellion, which in my mind is really just this incredible adaptation of the Neo-realist movement that was brought to the states specifically within a Black context in the 1960s and 70s. When I first actually watched "Killer of Sheep," it was this bizarre homecoming, even though I wasn't aware fully of that movement at the time. It was the first time I was able to sense my own instincts in a certain kind of way.
I struggled a little bit trying to figure out what I was making, like, what is my voice? I went to film school at UCLA, and I made some amazing friends, and I had mentors. I was trying to figure out these cinematic rules, like crossing the line. I just could not figure that out, man. And I think when you're younger, you're really focused on trying to master something, and your version of mastering something is to do it perfectly, and to do it perfectly within the constraints and traditions and parameters that have existed before you. And I think that my feeling like I was failing was actually a turning point for me of saying, Okay, I'm not necessarily failing at it. I'm just finding myself within that. And then when I saw "Killer of Sheep," and I was able to see the films that were being made during that time period, Zeinabu Irene Davis and Julie Dash and Billy Woodberry and Larry Clark, it was almost as if this was an example of filmmakers who were speaking impressionistically within the parameters of cinema, and I think that felt like something I could do.
KCRW: Your films don't exist in a vacuum. They're really about the way people connect in the world.
Bradley: I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a High 8 camcorder when I was 16 years old in high school. My parents are both painters, and they were married for about a year, and my dad's studio was not too far from where I went to school. And I remember going to find him at this bar that was around the corner, and I would just interrogate him, frankly, with the camera and ask him questions I was really afraid to ask him without the camera. And then I'd go home and do this cross examination and ask my mom these same questions. And that became my first film. My teacher, Andy Cohen, encouraged me to submit it to a film festival. I submitted it to a Quaker Film Festival, and it won this little award. And it was the first time I remember feeling I had found a way to communicate. And I think that fundamentally, that's what our purpose is: to find a way to feel like we can effectively communicate because to feel heard, is I think, to feel loved.
KCRW: Whenever I see black and white film, there's also that one thing that's missing subtextually because we don't tend to think in black and white anymore. And the missing presence of the father almost feels like it's what makes that time feel like it's not quite there, not quite present.
Bradley: I think that the absence of Robert, his physical absence, certainly as you said, I was hoping we would still feel his presence in the process of making the film. It was really important that he had agency, that he understood what we were doing and why we were doing it.
I remember just this past summer, watching the protests and really feeling the presence of Emmett Till's mother, who really had the brilliance and knowing what the role of seeing does for holding systems accountable. Thinking about the Vietnam War, part of the reason why I think people were out on the streets protesting was because they could see for the first time what war looked like. I grew up with the green screen. I grew up with this blocking of the truth, this visibility. And I think that that only further highlights the fact that we've got 2.3 million people that are incarcerated right now. And that is by design, you have an entire community that you can't see, and in this case, the only evidence of those communities is with the family, is with those that are serving time on the outside. So I think that certainly this question of the absence, and the presence of things being a key role, to the way in which the story was had to be articulated in cinematic terms was something I was thinking about.
I was making a short, silent film called "America" for about six years in black and white, because I wanted to work within the technical constraints of the turn of the century. And as I was trying to develop these other projects, to be honest with you, it's funny, you said, we don't really see in black and white anymore. At the time, I couldn't see in color, or I couldn't think about a film and see it in color in my head.
KCRW: But why was that? There's a part of us that makes an emotional leap and fills in some things, which happens in black and white. And I was wondering if you wanted to demand that kind of point of entry, not only for yourself or for the viewer?
Bradley: Yoshi Yamamoto talks a lot about when he cuts clothing, he likes working with black and white because you can see its shape and its form better. And I kind of feel the same way. I just keep going back to this idea of how young the craft is and these expectations that we have on what makes something authentic or legitimate, I think should always be kept into question.
KCRW: I guess I should ask you what "Time" is about.
Bradley: Fox Rich, who's the family matriarch, embarks on a 21 year journey in reuniting her family after a botched robbery that happened in the 90s in Louisiana, and for which they both served prison time. Robert was given a numerical life sentence: 60 years. Fox served three years. Parole is another part of the story; even if somebody is released, they're still looking at 40 years of parole. And that is a whole other conversation. But the film is about how this family moves through the system, moves through their own life in pursuit of coming back together again.
KCRW: Talk about setting up that opening scene.
Bradley: So that opening sequence really starts with the overall editorial process, which had so many twists and turns. This is my first feature length documentary. I was convinced that I was making a 13-minute film the whole time I was shooting it. On my last day of filming, I remember saying to Fox, Okay, I'm going to go edit, and I'll come back, and I'll show you some stuff. And she handed me that night what ended up being about 100 hours of her own personal archive, which I wasn't aware existed while I was shooting. And so when Gabe Rhodes, who cut the film, and I were sitting and really trying to figure out how do we rethink this entire film, it was really important that the intention stay the same, even if the structure and the length were going to change. And the intention for me was connected to a conversation that I had with the entire family before we started filming.
That is an important part of the process for me with any project I do: having a series of conversations around why we want to make this film, because that intention becomes the anchoring point for me every single day when I'm shooting about what I'm shooting, and why I'm shooting it. And so much of making documentaries is about honoring the present moment, and finding a way to navigate what's unexpected without trying to control it. And so this intention came directly from the family, saying, we want to make this film, because we feel that our story is the story of 2.3 million American families, and our story can offer hope. My job I felt like then was to translate: okay, well, hope can be kind of abstract and vague. What does that mean, in cinematic terms? What does that mean, in actionable terms? What does that mean for them in their daily life? And that was my focus every single day. It really kind of boiled down to these three things. It was individuality: their ability to be individuals in the world, and not be stigmatized by being an incarcerated family, which is a form of resistance in and of itself. It was certainly love. And it was also unity, their ability to stay together over the course of 21 years.
So when it came to months later, being in the editing room and being like, okay, we've got 100 hours of all this incredible footage that we hadn't anticipated, how do we create this opening sequence? It took a lot of time and pain and tears, saying, okay, the intention is also the anchoring point, not only when we're shooting, but in the edit. And so every single frame, I would like to think that we pulled from the archive, as well as the stuff that I shot, spoke to one of those three pillars, none of which are linear, none of which are chronological, all of which surpassed time and space.
KCRW: There's a moment that is really about forgiveness, and it comes at a point in the film that anybody else would treat as a climax. And it's really about the halfway point in the film. There were no tears there. It's just about sheer honesty. And I wonder what it was like when you found that moment.
Bradley: You're right, there are no tears there. And it's the Rising Phoenix moment. Gabe and I both watched every single inch of the footage backwards and forwards several times, and then came together and talked through it from every angle possible. And I remember, with that specific clip, it literally was a light bulb moment for lack of a better phrase.
Something I think I was taking for granted as a filmmaker is that people would understand [performance and putting on armor] is required of Black people, but specifically Black women, and I realized, especially when we were showing the film and in these test screening scenarios, people were really almost taken aback. They didn't understand; they needed that moment, they needed her to apologize, and to ask for forgiveness. It still presents a lot of questions, I think, around the same question of power, of control, of expectation, of victimhood. And it was clearly important for Fox. It was a turning point for her also, in that transition point of going from Sibil and becoming Fox and really saying, I have a voice and I'm going to use my voice for good.