Garrett Bradley’s documentary masterpiece TIME opens today at the Landmark in Chicago and will be available to stream via Amazon Prime on October 23. I reviewed it and interviewed Bradley about it for for Cine-file Chicago. I’m including both pieces below.
Garrett Bradley’s TIME (New Documentary)
Landmark Century Centre Cinema – Check Venue website for showtimes
My favorite movie of 2020 is Garrett Bradley’s TIME, a documentary about Sibil Fox Richardson, a remarkable woman who spent 21 years fighting for the release of her husband, Rob, from Louisiana State Penitentiary after he received an unjustly harsh 60-year-sentence for a first-offense robbery. One of the rallying cries of the Black Lives Matter movement has been that there are seemingly two justice systems in America, one for white people and another for everyone else; Bradley, a young, second-time feature director, illustrates this tragic maxim in the most human terms possible—by closely concentrating on the love story between Fox and Rob and the sadness of their separation. Given the subject matter, many other non-fiction filmmakers would have undoubtedly chosen to include more information about incarceration inequality (with an emphasis on statistics presented via on-screen text, expert interviews, etc.) but Bradley daringly eschews this approach in favor of a relentless focus on just a few people and their emotions (the Richardsons’ children are also prominently featured). TIME poignantly incorporates Fox’s own SD video diaries from over the years with newer HD footage of the Richardson family in the months leading up to Rob’s release, a strategy that, in Bradley’s own words, allows the narrative to move forwards and backwards through time simultaneously. The resulting accumulation of scenes spans over two decades but has been telescoped into a tight 81-minute run time, one that climaxes with a reunion so intimate and powerful to witness that it bears comparison to the final scene of Mizoguchi’s immortal SANSHO THE BAILIFF. Adding to the film’s spellbinding effect is evocative black-and-white cinematography and a soundtrack comprised of terrific gospel-blues piano songs by the Ethiopian composer Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou. (2020, 81 min, DCP Digital) [Michael Glover Smith]
More info on the in-person Landmark Century Centre Cinema screenings here.
Interview with TIME director Garrett Bradley
By Michael Glover Smith
One of the best and most important films of the year, Garrett Bradley’s TIME opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema and Emagine Frankfort. It will be available to stream via Amazon Prime on 10/23. I recently spoke to Bradley via Zoom about the film and her next project.
Michael Glover Smith: I’d like to start by asking you about the title of the film. Several of the subjects talk about the concept of time – sometimes in a philosophical way. Did you know you wanted to call it that from the beginning or was that something you discovered during the process of making it?
Garrett Bradley: I have a really hard time naming things in general. I think all of my films are one word! It’s funny because I remember Fox asked me a lot, in the process of being in the film, “What do you feel like the title is going to be?” She talked a lot about how, with all her sons, she would name them before they were born. And I was like, “I’m so the opposite. I need the film to be finished in order for me to name it.” I think, ultimately, I settled on that because “Time” is, oddly, very abstract. There’s no image that the word time elicits for me and yet it has a lot of different connotations. I mean, it’s been used as a form of oppression – you know, thinking about the clock as a symbol of the colonization of cultures through time, through “being on time,” through “being late…” And then it can also address these less concrete and more ephemeral and emotional ways that we move through the world. So I decided on the title of the film once it was finished and I was thinking about it in those ways.
MGS: I love how you chose not to include the logistics of how and why Rob was released from prison. I thought that was very daring on a narrative level – similar to how you didn’t focus on the robbery. I found myself Googling about it afterwards in order to find out the full story. But I’m glad you chose not to focus on those things because it was like you were saying, “That’s not what this is about. That’s not the film I’m interested in making.” Did you ever feel any pressure from anyone who was involved in producing or financing the film to make it more “informational?”
GB: Certainly. I think that was a huge part of the conversation while we were editing. I think a lot of it, for me, boiled down to audience and who I was speaking to. In the context of America, it’s very difficult to prove racism. It’s very difficult to prove what that looks like and how it’s articulated on a systematic level. And, in order to do that, I would’ve started to entangle myself into things that I felt the audience I was speaking to already knew. And I think the other part of it is when we really start to investigate this question of universality or accessibility or everybody understanding something, when we want to take that into account in the context of incarceration – if there’s 2.3 million people that are incarcerated there’s double or triple that number that are also affected by this issue – so when we talk about it being universally understood, who are we really talking about? And what is the true percentage of people that wouldn’t understand that? That, to me, is why I decided to go in the direction that I did.
MGS: It’s a beautiful movie to look at. Can you talk about your motivation to shoot in black-and-white and also, since so many of the images came from footage that Fox shot, was it difficult to color grade to get the black-and-white to match across multiple formats?
GB: I had always thought about TIME as being a sister film to ALONE (Bradley’s 2017 documentary short). And ALONE was in black-and-white because I was making another film called AMERICA, which was also in black-and-white (laughs). In my mind, I was only seeing in black-and-white. I wish I could take credit for this but Lon, who is the main woman we see in ALONE, when I showed the film to her and her sons before it premiered – her son, Jay, is the one that made this metaphorical connection of what it means for the subject matter to be in black-and-white, that it creates a sort of timelessness and that it also speaks to the black and white issue in our country. I wish I could take credit for that but I can’t. In my mind, it was really, “If I’m thinking about these as sister films, I always want them to exist together, adopting the same aesthetic and formal choices.” I went back and forth a little bit once (Fox’s) archive became available to me and I was aware of it – myself and Gabe Rhodes who cut the film – because the archive was in color and I did want to see what that would look like. There are so many spectrums with color. You are telling stories by the type of color you’re working with. I really was invested in trying to create – because I wanted this to feel like the story was moving forward but it was also moving backwards at the same time and it was constantly sort of oscillating between the two – and in order to do that there needed to be some visual uniformity. There needed to be an aesthetic linearity, a cohesiveness, and so the black-and-white really was the only thing that was going to let us do that. The color ended up feeling more like a collage and you really could feel kind of the tug and pull of time.
MGS: The music is something else that binds the footage together. I was blown away by this piano score, which I read later was composed by an Ethiopian nun. At what point did that come into play? Was that during the editing and how did you decide it was appropriate for this story?
GB: Yeah! She’s a 96-year-old Ethiopian nun. She’s still alive. I came across the music actually just through YouTube. It popped up in my algorithm. First, I just loved the music. It immediately spoke to me. And then when I laid it with picture, it was like magic. It just worked. And then there were these two other signs: Some of the names of the tracks were “A Mother’s Love,” or “A Young Girl’s Complaint,” or “Homesickness.” There were these themes that were running throughout the music itself that just felt like it spiritually wanted to be connected with those images. And then when I was reading more about Emahoy’s life – as somebody who came from a wealthy family in Ethiopia, became a prisoner of war, was classically trained in music (in Egypt) then returned back to Ethiopia, and essentially created her own genre of music and then recorded this one album in 1963 for the purpose of raising money for an orphanage – I felt like the lives of these two women were beautifully connected and how amazing it would be to bring them together. So it was both a political and musical choice all in one.
MGS: In addition to cinema, one of my other passions is tennis so I wanted to ask where you are with your Naomi Osaka project.
GB: We’ve been shooting for a little over a year and it’s been really great to work with her. Especially at this point in her life where, in many ways, a lot of the questions that she’s asking herself are the same questions the world is asking itself. She’s an incredibly mentally brilliant and strong young woman. It’s been really great to be able to work with Fox to make TIME and then also to be able to work with someone much younger but who I think has the same leadership skills as somebody like the entire Richardson family.
MGS: I can’t wait to see it. Thank you so much for speaking to me and best of luck to you.
GB: Thank you for your time.