For filmmaker and artist Garrett Bradley, bearing witness has always been a means for 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 age 16. “It was me going to my dad’s studio and harassing him with my camera—asking him questions about what he thinks about art, what he thinks about my mom, and why they got a divorce. And then I would go and ask my mom those same questions,” she says.
Bradley’s parents were only married for a year, so most of what she’d known about their relationship had been a product of her youthful imagination. “[Those interviews] were a way for me to try to fill in the missing pieces and understand, from an artistic standpoint, their philosophies and backgrounds—but also what went wrong in their relationship, and how there might be some level of understanding or revelation.”
Almost two decades later, Bradley continues her pursuit of understanding the lives of others through film. Her 2017 documentary short Alone—which follows Aloné Watts, a young woman whose fiancé, Desmond (a subject in Bradley’s first feature film, Below Dreams), is incarcerated—won Sundance’s Short Film Jury Award for Non-Fiction. Its success inspired her to take another look at the mass incarceration crisis, which impacts more than 2.3 million people in the United States. She asked herself, “Why don’t we make another film that shows a similar journey, but in a very different way?”
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While researching Alone, Bradley came across the organization Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children. There she met Sibil Fox Richardson (aka Fox Rich), the protagonist of her next film, Time. Rich had been campaigning for the release of her husband, Rob, who was facing 65 years for armed robbery and jury tampering. Time was also set to be a short until Rich handed Bradley 100 hours of self-taped footage. “It wasn’t until she handed me those tapes that I was like, ‘Oh, this is not a 13-minute film,’” Bradley says.
In collaging new and archival footage, Bradley thoughtfully obscures the divide between filmmaker and subject, joining the ranks of Amiri Baraka, William Greaves, and other Black artists who’ve employed abstraction to reclaim how their stories are told. Rather than clinically documenting the carceral system, Bradley invites audiences to bear witness to an epic love story—and dream of a more just future. The feature film earned Bradley the Best Directing Award for U.S. Documentary at Sundance earlier this year, and debuts in select theaters and on Amazon Prime Video this month.
In November, Bradley’s work will animate the galleries of New York’s Museum of Modern Art as part of Projects: Garrett Bradley, her first solo museum exhibition. An exhibit highlight, America, presents footage from Lime Kiln Club Field Day, believed to be the oldest surviving film with an all-Black cast, alongside original vignettes. The multichannel video installation is a meditation on how the past is a reflection of the present and future.
“Even though the modern challenge is to be in the present moment, we are also very much always in the present moment,” Bradley says. Here, as in much of her work, viewers come away with the understanding that what actually exists is just as important as what we dream up to fill in the empty spaces.
This story appears in the November 2020 issue of ELLE.
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