Before Garrett Bradley started shooting “Time,” she asked the documentary’s star Fox Rich why she wanted to make the film. Rich, who had been raising her six children while her husband Robert was serving a 60-year prison sentence, believed her story was that of the countless loved ones of the 2.3 million incarcerated in the American prison system. She told Bradley that telling her story may offer a layer of hope and guidance to others.
“My job as a filmmaker, I felt, is to translate that into a visual space, into a space that I can imagine and see,” said Bradley on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast. “So the way to do that was to focus on daily life, to focus on routine and ritual, and hopefully be able to say there is no way to avoid the system. The system unequivocally embeds itself in daily life and you cannot turn it on or off.”
That did not mean constantly filming Rich and trailing her family’s every move. In that sense, Bradley is not a vérité filmmaker but rather one who heavily favors specificity. She studied Rich’s routine, then made specific choices of what and where to film, but also how to film Fox and her family.
“How I can blur the line as much as possible between our bodies and our minds and the film itself?” Bradley said that is the question she constantly asks herself while filming. “How can I feel as if the viewer is just using their own eyes in space that I’m not in-between the two of them.”
In Bradley’s first feature, “Below Dreams,” that meant shooting everything handheld. Since then, the director has learned to rely on zoom lenses instead. As can be seen in the video essay above, the director’s present-day black-and-white footage of the Rich family features determined, often tight frames, that give the viewer a highly curated way of seeing the Fox and her family.
As Bradley explained in the video, “working with zooms [was] the more controlled version of what I was trying to do with the handheld because what it did was offer context and specificity within a single frame, which is how we actually live in the world. That we understand the room that we’re in, but then we start to concentrate in on one specific thing. The zoom is a great way to offer both of those things.”
Bradley intended “Time” to be a short film, but when they finished shooting Rich handed her a black bag of mini-DV tapes — 100 hours of home movies over 20 years. The family archive opened up the story, allowing Bradley and her editor Gabriel Rhodes to explore Fox’s arc of becoming a fierce activist. It also presented a challenge to the Bradley’s formal instincts.
“I had this slick, very visual aesthetic that I was working within,” explained Bradley. “And how to do I find a way to incorporate the materiality and the textures of footage that was shot in ’90s on mini-DV tape? That was also beautiful, but how do we bring those things together?”
To watch how Bradley found a narrative and poetic ways to weave the two together scroll up to the video. To hear the full conversation, subscribe to the podcast below:
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, and SoundCloud. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.