- LOS ANGELES
A tale of two Sundance Film Festivals provides backstory on director Garrett Bradley’s lauded documentary Time which was theatrically released earlier this month followed by a streaming launch on Amazon Prime.
We start at the 2017 Sundance fest where Bradley’s New York Times Op Docs film Alone won the Grand Jury Award for best nonfiction short. Alone delved into mass incarceration and its repercussions on the modern Black American family as seen through the eyes of a single mom in New Orleans.
Bradley’s experience on that film led her to a deeper longer form exploration of another woman, Sibil “Fox Rich” Richardson, whose husband Rob was imprisoned for what turned out to be 21-plus years. Time, a feature documentary telling Fox’s story--and the impact of Rob’s incarceration on her and their six children--went on to win Bradley the Directing Award in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. She became the first Black woman to earn that distinction. And now the film is considered a strong Academy Award contender. Bradley could become the first Black woman to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
Time does more than chronicle the injustice of a far too harsh prison sentence on Rob and its profound effect on loved ones. The film serves as an almost lyrical ode blending intimate original footage captured by Bradley with archival family video taken by Fox of her kids at various stages of their lives. We see in this blend of home movies and Bradley’s footage a mom struggling to raise a family, turning her life around to become a successful professional. Yet all the while audiences feel both her enduring love for Rob and the ongoing ache she and the kids feel due to his incarceration. He is an absent husband and father but paradoxically for Fox he is seemingly always present--in her heart and mind as she strives to have him set free one day.
Rob and Fox were high school sweethearts who married and had dreams. They planned to start a hip hop clothing store but the business fell through. Desperate, they attempted to hold up a credit union office, a caper that went south. Though no money was stolen and no one was hurt, Fox, the getaway driver, and Rob got prison sentences. At the time, Fox was three months pregnant with twins. Rob was sentenced to 60 years.
Time weaves its way through their story, showing the kids at various ages, not always advancing chronologically but rather taking us in and out of their lives at different junctures, going back and forth to create a tapestry that weaves us intimately into a family that unites and achieves yet feels the pain of a dad and spouse who’s out of sight but never out of mind.
For Bradley, a key dynamic in the film is her close-knit collaboration with editor Gabriel Rhodes. This marked the first time she had worked with an editor. “I had been cutting my own films,” related Bradley who noted that for Time it “became really critical to open up the collaborative process. I hit a ceiling with what I could do as a filmmaker and director.”
She connected with Rhodes, drawn to him in part by his work on Mantangi/Maya/M.I.A, director Stephen Loveridge’s portrait of the Sri Lankin artist and musician known as M.I.A. Bradley saw in that documentary a strong female central figure, somebody who was a mother, politically engaged and very much a leader. The film also entailed working with a treasure trove of personal archival footage akin to what Fox had on her family. Thus Rhodes “felt to me like a natural fit” for Time, assessed Bradley. “Gabe has a really brilliant mind, a way of distilling ideas and scenes that is incredibly elegant yet simple, rooted in the emotionality of the storyline. The two of us learned a lot from one another.”
Rhodes recalled that they didn’t always have to be in the same room to connect. At one point while Rhodes was in Brooklyn, Bradley was living in Rome. “We were on the phone a lot. He would send me things to watch. We had long conversations. Getting down to the wire, we were sending each other 30-second clips of things and embedding them in a sequence. We were doing the remote thing before remote was a thing.”
Indeed finding the way to best blend the archival video with contemporary footage was a prime challenge that Time posed to Bradley and Rhodes. “I was aware of the archive while shooting,” said Bradley. “That was something that Gabe and I tried to tackle. We came at it from multiple angles. How can we find interesting visual intersections between current and old footage?”
The answer in part came, continued Bradley, by being “predominantly focused on what is happening emotionally in this (archival footage) moment and connecting it to a current moment.”
Even the seemingly mundane moments leave an imprint. Fox’s perseverance and patience, for example, are evident in a series of phone calls she makes to a judge’s clerk, eager to find out if a ruling has been made that could set her husband free. She is put on hold repeatedly with call after call yielding no news. Still, she is courteous in the face of a system that has put her on hold interminably--another reflection of wasted time.
As for what her biggest takeaway or lessons learned have been from her experience on Time, Bradley cited the need of a documentary filmmaker to be “nimble, flexible, in a potential state of learning and pivoting.” She added that what she gained is perhaps less of a lesson and more of “a reinforced belief system around what it means to work with people. Filmmaking is an inherently collaborative process. The idea of an auteur director is a fallacy to a certain extent.”
Just as her short film Alone informed and inspired Time, Bradley sees being active in different forms of storytelling as a creatively rewarding catalyst. She is, for example, on the commercialmaking/branded content directorial roster of production house m ss ng p eces. Bradley said she’s excited about the prospects of “working in that [advertising] sphere.”
Bradley’s body of work also includes the short film America which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, and an episode of the primetime series Queen Sugar on Oprah Winfrey’s network OWN for executive producer/show creator Ava DuVernay.