Filmmaker Garrett Bradley refuses to be just one thing.
The daughter of a white mother and a black father, a New Yorker transplanted to New Orleans, self-taught and UCLA-trained, Bradley is, she says, "neither this nor that," though the more accurate description might be "both, and."
"If you’re somebody who grows up as an African American, just speaking from my own experience, I think you’re born into a heightened sense of imagination," she explains, sipping Maker’s Mark in a smoky French Quarter dive called Cosimo’s, as jukebox Motown strains to be heard over the hum of conversation. "Because you have to become a shape shifter in order to succeed."
This skill for metamorphosis is on display in Bradley’s superb debut feature, "Below Dreams," which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014 and is now available on VOD. The film’s poetic realism, as I wrote in my review out of last year’s New Orleans Film Festival, emerges from a deft blend of the dreamlike and the down-to-earth: the camera might chase through the bowels of New York’s Port Authority in the vein of cinema vérité, only to pause for three minutes to paint a dusky still life of a roadside bus stop. It’s an aesthetic that resists simplistic distinctions between documentary and narrative filmmaking, one that Bradley’s been honing since high school.
"I made my first film when I was 16, and when I say I made my first film, my stepdad gave me a camcorder," says Bradley, whose parents split up when she was two years old. "My dad was always on tour, he was never around really when I was younger—they had a bad divorce—so I was starting to get to know my dad, spend time with him alone, around that same time. I think it was probably the only way I could deal with him, to bring my camera around… I always had a handheld camera and I was just observing, the camera being my eye."
With a teacher’s encouragement, Bradley submitted the film to a festival, where it won an award from a panel of jurors that included famed critic Stanley Crouch.
"A light bulb went off in my head," she remembers. "’I can keep doing this.’"
After majoring in religion at Smith College, Bradley earned an MFA in Directing at UCLA, and it was during summers off from school, on the 37-hour Greyhound route between New York and New Orleans, that she began recording the conversations that inspired "Below Dreams." Set in New Orleans, the film’s impressionistic narrative follows three twentysomething protagonists—Elliott (Elliott Ehlers), in search of a woman he met in New York; Leann (Leann Miller), a single mother of four yearning to work as a model and actress; and Jamaine (Jamaine Johnson), fresh off a stint in prison and struggling to land a job—who, like the young people Bradley met on her journeys, defy the "millennial" stereotype promulgated in the media.
"I was so pissed off reading that, and I think that artists have the ability to stand up and to reveal things that popular culture or the government isn’t dealing with," Bradley says, referring to a 2010 report in the New York Times Magazine, "What Is It About 20-Somethings?" that might be considered the Urtext of the unsatisfying "millennial" construct. "We are the interpreters of culture, I think. And when something affects you, or speaks to you, I felt a responsibility to act on it. And I think that what got me through making the film, honestly, was the prospect of responding to what I didn’t think was just."
In order to ensure the film’s verisimilitude, Bradley worked with the cast for six months—for a micro-budget 16-day shoot—to develop a script that reflected the rhythms of their own language and the truth of their own experiences. Her patience paid off, for "Below Dreams" features three rich, unvarnished lead performances; particularly impressive are Miller and Johnson, who came to the project (via Craigslist ad) with no formal training or professional experience.
"I would just ask a question, ‘What does that line mean to you? What is the first thing that comes to mind?’" Bradley says of rehearsing with Miller, comparing the process to a kind of therapy. "It’s that combination of really knowing it like the back of your hand so you can stop knowing it. Then everybody is just in the moment. And that moment is what makes the work become real. Because it’s not trying to perfect what we’ve practiced. What we’ve practiced is just now part of our DNA, part of our anatomy."
Bradley’s commitment to naturalism plays out in "Below Dreams" as a portrait of New Orleans neighborhoods, residents, and subcultures rarely seen in film and television. The camera follows alongside Jamaine and an old friend as they ride a scooter down the rapidly changing St. Claude Avenue, and captures the cracked asphalt and shotgun homes of wards tourists never visit; even the neon marquees of Bourbon Street watering holes seem new when viewed through local eyes. For Bradley, such choices reflect a desire to depict textures of race and class that the dominant narrative of the millennial generation often elides.
"A lot of it came from really understanding where the natural geography is of the subjects in the film," she explains. "This is a black majority city, and the visual perspective that we usually see of New Orleans is a white perspective of New Orleans… In order to feel connected to the characters, or even connected to the trueness of the city, we have to see beyond the tourist perspective, we have to go to spaces that these characters go."
Yet for all the remarkable specificity of "Below Dreams," Bradley adds that her participation in IFP’s Independent Filmmaker Lab proved to her that the film examines issues of relevance beyond the Crescent City, and indeed beyond the South—that for all Americans, not only people of color, the region’s past and present demand a reckoning.
"I wasn’t from here, but I am a woman, I am a black woman, and I am a college graduate, and so I could connect with these characters, and I didn’t have to be from New Orleans in order to connect with the experiences that existed here," she says. "To a certain extent, we all belong here. We all started off here. The South is the Jerusalem of America, in a lot of ways."
In a city where the first question posed to a new acquaintance is often "Where’d you go to high school?" Bradley’s status as an outsider, combined with her personal experience, has produced one of the more empathic depictions of New Orleans’ rumpled fabric to come out of the recent boom in local film production. She is, much like New Orleans itself, neither this nor that.
"Growing up in New York with a white mom and a black dad and feeling, from the day I was born, the cultural tension… I’m very much a part of two worlds just inherently, in my own DNA," she says. "And my introduction to film was exactly the same way. So it seems only obvious that it would be reflected in the work that I do."
Bradley’s been busy: her second feature, the New Orleans-set "Cover Me" (trailer below), played Rotterdam in January, and her next project, an ambitious series of 12 silent, 35mm films produced in association with Catherine Gund’s Aubin Pictures and supported by the Art Matters Foundation, begins shooting in Louisiana’s plantation district next month. It is, she says, shortly before we order another round of Maker’s and swipe a couple slices of pizza from a friend in the bar, of a piece with "Below Dreams," committed to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, fusing "this" and "that" to create "both, and."
"Connecting the dots," she says, "is something that I don’t anticipate stopping."
"Below Dreams" is now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, and VUDU.