Time tracks the two-decade long struggle of Fox Rich and her family to free her husband, Rob, from prison. Shot beautifully in black and white, with an extraordinary piano soundtrack by Ethiopian composer-turned-nun Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, the film is made up of two distinct parts melded by Bradley and editor Gabe Rhodes. We follow Rich in the present day, checking on her husband’s parole status, and her archive of the past. Director Garrett Bradley edited her own past shorts, “America” and “Alone,” but realized she needed an outside voice to help Time sing. Documentarian Robert Greene, whose films include Kate Plays Christine and Actress, spoke with Garrett Bradley about her post-production process. —MM
Robert Greene: I am actually talking to you from my editing room right now. I cut all my films and I’ve cut other films, so I’m excited to talk. I can’t believe what you pulled off, and the economy of what you were able to do, and the depth of what you were able to achieve. Let’s start with the basics: Give me a sense of what the editing process was like.
Garrett Bradley: I started making films in relative solitude, like a lot of us do. And I picked up a certain skill set by necessity. I was editing because I didn’t know any other editors. So I started to figure things out on my own, and in the process of doing that, it helped me develop my own aesthetic. You couldn’t really separate the footage from the way in which it was edited. Because of that solitude, it was a linear dialogue happening between both phases of production. But I felt that I had reached a glass ceiling, and I knew where my weaknesses were and that I was leaning on my instincts and my own inclinations toward visual poetry. I wasn’t pushing myself to think about how to connect the dots and reinforce emotion from a place that is more practical, linear even.
I thought Time was going to be a short 13-minute film — I was so adamant about that shit. Working with Concordia as a studio was about expanding the collaborative process: working in an editing bay with an editor, and trying to push some of these elements forward. I’d seen the M.I.A. doc [Steve Loveridge’s Matangi/MAYA/M.I.A.] a year prior at Sundance, and its co-editor Gabe Rhodes worked in a beautiful way with a strong female lead, for lack of a better phrase — someone who was connected in a political way with the world, and who also had an incredible personal archive. There was this natural calling for what he could bring to the table in Time.
Greene: Garrett, I’m looking at my fucking footage right now. The cut’s going well, but it’s still got all my bullshit in there that I’m struggling through and processing. It’s inspiring to hear and see you retain every bit of your voice and give up a lot in that collaborative process.
Bradley: It begs the question: What is our voice? What is it that we think that we’re retaining? Those were the central questions that I was being faced with. On a very real level, I had signed some kind of unspoken contract with myself that I wasn’t capable of any other type of storytelling — that if I did that, it would be mainstream, that legible storytelling, something that could be connected with dots, versus just being felt or evoked. It would somehow not be me. Once I let go of that, it opened a whole other set of possibilities.
Greene: In terms of your voice, let’s talk about that footage that arrived from Fox. You’re making this film. Just like previously, you’re in control, and that’s what I love about your films: You are in control. “I’m making a short, dammit, and I know what it is. I know what it looks like. I know what it tastes like.” And then all of a sudden, there’s an archive of 20 years of material that just lands in your lap, where Fox reveals herself to be an incredible filmmaker herself.
Garrett Bradley: It’s always been important for me in every project that the people I’m making the film with are informing the creative choices. It’s not me imposing an aesthetic, or a form, or tone, or a vibe, onto somebody or a group. But the form is a reflection of them. That inherently challenges the idea of the auteur, this singular vision. Time for me is two filmmakers coming together to make a third film, across time and space. What Fox brought to the table was equal to what I’m bringing as a filmmaker. There were challenges that the film was up against, which was to justify the armor that Fox had accumulated over time. So the woman I met 19 years into the process of her husband’s incarceration had armor around her over the course of having to go to parole hearings multiple times a year, every year, and the requirement of being presentational, having to present yourself to a committee, having to be exceptional. A lot of her archive shows Fox in her youth, in a sort of free spirit.
Robert Greene: The images in her footage are so cinematic. A little bit of this armor that you’re talking about is present in the early material, but you also see that the camera was therapy from the beginning, even.
You said it beautifully: The entire idea of the documentary auteur is contradictory in a beautiful way. It’s the reason why I do this work. It’s probably why you do this work. I love the tension between my ideas and then what the real world and the people I’m working with have to say about my ideas. That doesn’t invalidate my ideas, and it doesn’t invalidate the real world. That’s why I’m excited about this kind of work.
The opening six minutes is all Fox’s footage — it feels like a gift to the audience. Then the first thing we see of Fox in the present day, of your material, is her doing a commercial. It’s a great scene that shows her in control of her image. What is that structural decision to open up with six minutes of footage, and then the first time we see her, we see her in this very controlled scenario where she’s working with a white camera guy, which has reverberations for me thinking about representation and what it means to work with someone. She’s very much in control of that image. How does that help us understand who she is?
Bradley: It was important as a filmmaker to immediately understand that this film is going to tell a story on the family’s terms, and those terms are no different than my own as a filmmaker. We are together on the same agenda. As a Black woman, as a filmmaker myself, there’s a lot that I respect and see in myself and aspire to in the way in which Fox has moved through the world, and how she has maintained her autonomy and individuality despite the systematic attempts to rid her of those things. It’s a celebration of that authorship, and a re-claiming of one’s own narrative. The effort and commitment to illuminating examples of that in history and in the present moment are extremely important.
Robert Greene: There’s a moment where we watch Fox perform on the phone call, and what I mean by perform, is that she has this whole ritual of trying to be as nice as possible. It’s not that it’s inauthentic at all. For me, performance never means inauthentic, it means finding truth through careful construction of words and phrases and gestures.
On the other end of the call, you hear that Southern niceness, which we can discern is probably a white woman. Being from the South, that voice, the fake politeness that’s just to get you to not ask any other questions, is so palpable to me. You see Fox say everything correctly, she changes her tone, she gives a different version of her performance. And then she’s met with this wall of bullshit basically that she’s had to deal with for 20 years.
Then we see Fox break down. We see that mask drop; we see that change in her where she goes from being someone who’s completely in control of every single word, to someone who isn’t. Because you’ve done such a good job of editing her, we haven’t seen that yet, and it’s so powerful.
Garrett Bradley: In Time, I frame this idea of presentation, as both a form of oppression and resistance. Just as in “America,” Bert Williams was forced to wear blackface in order to corral an entire integrated cast and crew in 1913, several years after Plessy v. Ferguson. But that did not take away his power. In fact, there’s a lot of power in his nuances. It was the same situation with Fox: the prison industrial complex, parole boards which one is required to go to over a course over 21 years, multiple times a year sometimes, the effect that that has on the human psyche, and the expectation that was put on her and her family of presenting themselves in the form of black exceptionalism, of being perfect — it isn’t as simple as just saying that it’s a matter of oppression. Fox has found a way to also use that armor as a form of resistance and as a form of self love.
And so in that moment, we needed to understand all of that context of why the armor is necessary. Where does it come from? How does one maneuver through it, in order for the passion that we see from Fox towards the end of the film, to be fully understood in a universal sense, by people who do not understand or have any relationship with what the bureaucracy of the system is? If that scene had opened the film, it would not have the same impact. It would not have done the same thing, because it would not have allowed audiences to participate in the bureaucracy and in the frustration, which is part of the whole point of the film, which is to get us to feel connected in that journey.
Continue for more of Garrett Bradley and Robert Greene in conversation on Time