How Time director Garrett Bradley captured 'hope in cinematic terms' for her Oscar-nominated documentary
The doc could make Bradley the first Black female director to win an Oscar in any category.
Garrett Bradley had no idea she was embarking on her feature-documentary debut when she began work on Time, the extraordinary film that would later earn her a Best Documentary Oscar nomination. The planned 13-minute short grew into an 81-minute feature after Bradley's subject, Sibil Fox Richardson (also known as Fox Rich), gifted her with a 100-hour trove of home video footage at the end of shooting.
"I said to Fox, 'I'll be back in a few months and I'll show you the cut,' and she said, 'Hold on, I wanna give you something,'" recalls Bradley, who hadn't even been aware of the footage until then. "It was both my worst nightmare and my dream come true, because it wasn't something I was expecting. It really challenged me as a filmmaker, to honor this archive in a way that would not change the intention of why I wanted to make the film."
Time (which is streaming for free on Amazon and YouTube until Monday) traces the two decades Rich's husband Robert spent in prison, but defies all expectations for a film about mass incarceration. Interweaving Rich's home videos and Bradley's own footage, it homes in on moments of life and humanity for Rich and her six sons through the years — birthdays, car rides, a graduation — as they grow from children to bearded men before our eyes.
It's a deeply intimate and personal approach to documentary filmmaking, one Bradley says is simply "intuitive" for her. "I don't think I would know how to make films any other way," she says. "In fact, I've tried to fit into templates and parameters and traditions that exist, and I do them terribly."
"I came to this story from a human connection, and with the intent of trying to illustrate the human impact of incarceration," she adds. "I think that Time really stands on the shoulders of Ava [DuVernay]'s 13th, which really shows you the full scope of American slavery and how that connects to the prison industrial complex. I think if you were to watch that film and then watch Time,you would have a full holistic picture of both the facts and the effects."
Bradley met Rich, who works as an anti-prison activist, while making Alone, a New York Times "op-doc" about a woman with an incarcerated boyfriend. As the director got to know Rich, and later her family, a new film began to take form, shaped by Bradley's relationship and connection with her subjects.
"Fox and Robert were really clear that they felt their story is the story of 2.3 million American families right now, and their story could offer hope," Bradley says. "So my job was to distill what hope looked like in cinematic terms, what hope looked like in their daily ritual and routine. That was what I was seeking to capture every day in filming."
That intent, she explains, helped guide her filmmaking choices every step of the way, from the moments she captured to the way she assembled the final edit.
"When we think about emotionality or vulnerability in the context of documentary filmmaking, I think there is a tradition where weakness or our darkest moments as human beings are somehow more revealing or more truthful than our strengths and our strongest moments," muses Bradley. "And I'm really deeply invested in victory, and in joy, and in the way in which people actually want to present themselves. I'm not interested in getting around that or behind that. I don't think that's any more truthful than the way in which somebody presents themselves in the world."
Clearly, it's an approach that resonates with others. Time garnered Bradley the U.S. Documentary Directing Award at Sundance, making her the first Black woman to win the award, and she could become the first Black female director to win in any category at the Oscars come April 25.
"It's not something that I take lightly," Bradley says of the distinction. "It's a bittersweet feeling. And it's one that I'm incredibly grateful for, even just to have gotten this far."
But mostly, she's just grateful "to be able to continue to share the film with people," she says.
"I think the response that we've received is a reflection of our culture's value system, a temperature read of our cultural consciousness," Bradley adds. "What we are hearing is that people matter and that we want more human connection, which is a beautiful thing."
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