Garrett Bradley on New Documentary Time and the Carceral Crisis

For filmmaker and artist Garrett Bradley, witnessing has always been a way of understanding the world. Born and raised in New York City by two abstract painters, Suzanne McClelland and Peter Bradley, Garrett, 34, made her first film at 16. “I was the one who went to my father’s studio and harassed him with my camera – asking him questions about what he thinks of art, what he thinks of my mother and why they divorced. And then I would go and ask my mother the same questions, ”she said.

Bradley’s parents had only been married for a year, so most of what she knew about their relationship was the product of her young imagination. “[Those interviews] were a way for me to try to fill in the missing pieces and to understand, artistically speaking, their philosophies and background – but also what went wrong in their relationship and how there could be a certain level of understanding or revelation.

Almost two decades later, Bradley continues his quest to understand the lives of others through cinema. His 2017 short documentary Only—Who follows Aloné Watts, a young woman whose fiancé, Desmond (subject of Bradley’s first feature film, Under dreams), is incarcerated – won the Sundance Jury Prize for Short Film for Non-Fiction. Her success prompted her to take another look at the mass incarceration crisis, which affects more than 2.3 million people in the United States. She asked herself, “Why don’t we do another movie that shows a similar journey, but in a very different way?”

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During the search Only, Bradley came across the Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children organization. There she met Sibil Fox Richardson (aka Fox Rich), the protagonist of her next film, Time. Rich had campaigned for the release of her husband, Rob, who was facing 65 years for armed robbery and jury tampering. Time was also meant to be a short film until Rich handed Bradley 100 hours of self-recorded footage. “It wasn’t until she handed me these tapes that I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t a 13 minute movie,’” Bradley says.

By pasting in new and archival footage, Bradley thoughtfully blurs the divide between filmmaker and subject, joining the ranks of Amiri Baraka, William Greaves and other black artists who have used abstraction to reclaim the way whose stories are told. Rather than clinically documenting the prison system, Bradley invites the public to witness an epic love story and dream of a fairer future. The feature won Bradley the Best Director for an American Documentary at Sundance earlier this year and debuts in select theaters and on Amazon Prime Video this month.

a still image of garrett bradley's america 2019
A still image of America from Bradley (2019).

Courtesy of Garrett Bradley

In November, Bradley’s work will animate the galleries of the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of Projects: Garrett Bradley, his first solo exhibition at the museum. A highlight of the exhibition, America, presents images of Lime Kiln Club Field Day, considered the oldest film still alive with an all-black cast, alongside original thumbnails. The multichannel video installation is a meditation on how the past reflects the present and the future.

“Even though the modern challenge is to be in the present moment, we are also very always in the present moment, ”Bradley says. Here, as in much of his work, viewers come away with the understanding that what actually exists is just as important as what we dream of filling in the blanks.

Watch Time from October 16

This story appears in the November 2020 issue of SHE.

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