The poetic vérité of filmmaker Garrett Bradley
by Morgan JerkinsPhotography by blvxmth
This year’s Whitney Biennial, which opened in May and continues through September 22, set out as one of the overarching themes for its 75 chosen participants ‘the mining of history in order to reimagine the present or future.’ Garrett Bradley, an emerging New Orleans-based filmmaker whose penetrating work has made her one of the most anticipated entrants of the show, not only took the direction to heart but took it directly into the lives of mother and daughter pairs from interracial families who answered an ad she placed on Craigslist.
For her work in the biennial, AKA, she asked the pairs questions about how they conceived of the concept of race, how their feelings about the world’s perception of their family affected their relationship, and how they envisioned that relationship being embodied in film—answers to which surprised her in their complexity and molded her scene-making: ‘My mother and I could face back to back, holding each other, because this is what I’ve always wanted. And I know if I saw that image, it would mean something to me to put it up on the wall.’ Bradley’s deep interests in the interrelated mechanisms of race and cinema have, in a sense, shaped her work from the beginning. Her previous film, America—which premiered at Sundance this year and was praised by The Guardian’s Simran Hans as ‘the most original film I saw all festival’—intersperses, in dreamlike fashion, scenes and stills from the never-completed 1913 silent film Lime Kiln Club Field Day. In 2014 the Museum of Modern Art’s To Save and Project film festival showcased a restored version of the film, reconstructed from hours of footage. Lime Kiln Club Field Day is important because it’s the earliest surviving film featuring an all-African-American cast, and it stars pioneering vaudeville performer Bert Williams, one of the most famous black actors of his day. The film is striking not only because of its survival story, but also because of its distinct depiction of beauty and joy in black life, a rarity in cinema of this era. Since the vast majority of feature films from the silent era have been lost to time (70 percent, according to a Library of Congress study), it’s likely that many more such movies were made and found an audience in their day.
Lime Kiln Club Field Day struck Bradley as utterly fascinating, and inspired the 33-year-old filmmaker to imagine this invisible period in black cinema. Shot on 35mm film, ‘America,’ is made up of a series of 12 silent, black-and-white shorts meant to represent moments from these missing films. The scenes are seemingly unrelated—a group of boys grab at a white sheet that floats above them, a pair of blacksmiths pound anvils with hammers, a man gets baptized in a church, a couple skate in a roller rink—but the way they transition from one to the next suggests continuous movement. ‘This idea of black cinema being a discrete movement is a fallacy,’ Bradley says. ‘In fact, it is a simultaneous yet invisible thread that runs parallel to ‘American cinema.’’ Bradley grew up a downtown Manhattan kid with artist parents, both abstract painters. They split when she was two years old, and visits with her father were sporadic when she was young. Her questions around her dad’s absence inspired her first film project. Made with a camcorder when she was 16, the film is her attempt to understand her mother and father as individuals, not just parents. It also showed her that she liked to observe reality from behind a camera, and that filmmaking was perhaps something she should keep doing. After graduating from Smith College, where she studied religion while also taking some filmmaking classes at nearby Hampshire College, Bradley attended UCLA Film School. There she worked alongside Billy Woodberry, who was part of a wave of filmmakers out of UCLA starting in the late ’60s, dubbed the L.A. Rebellion. Toward the end of the program, however, she became restless. ‘I imagine this is what happens with most Masters programs,’ she says. ‘You start to resist it and you start to find yourself. You’ve mastered tools in a certain kind of way that you’re finally able to see yourself in them, whether that fits in with what you’re being taught or not.’ Though she found mentors and made connections, she didn’t have many friends who had film equipment and were able to work with her on weekends. This impasse turned out to be an opportunity, however, propelling her to leave her familiar environment in search of inspiration. She found it, of all places, on Greyhound bus trips between New York City and New Orleans. Over the course of a year, she recorded a series of interviews with fellow passengers around her age about their lives and aspirations. Bits of those conversations were adapted into the screenplay of her first feature-length film, 2014’s ‘Below Dreams’.
Shot vérité style, the film follows three people in their twenties in New Orleans—a single mother with four young children, a former felon trying to get a job, and a man visiting from New York—as they negotiate their individual struggles, which range from post-college angst to enduring the humiliations of poverty. In one scene, the camera follows behind the mother as she walks with her kids in search of a place to eat. We see in her mix of exhaustion and loss of patience and worry exactly how difficult that task is. The film allows such naturalistic details to unfold at the pace of real life, which elicits empathy from the viewer. ‘I’m very sensitive to inequality and what isn’t fair,’ says Bradley. ‘I’m interested in taking that information and personalizing it on a human level. Anyone who’s viewing it can connect with that human being, and all of these other elements—poverty, trauma—may be in the frame, but they’re not overt.’ While working on ‘Below Dreams,’ Bradley moved to New Orleans and took a few side gigs—a hearse driver for a funeral home and a sales position at a florist and an American Apparel store. These experiences, she says, allowed her to enter the lives of strangers in intimate ways, but also to think about her position in the city as an artist transplant. ‘What does it mean to move to a place like New Orleans where the minimum wage is so low?’ she recalls thinking. ‘How do you find your own positioning where you’re contributing? You’re contributing to an economy and you’re contributing to a culture as well. Also, you’re trying to make your work or sell your work; it presents a new set of challenges.’
‘What speaks to me first and foremost: What is it that I can offer in this present moment, whether it’s a scenario, a space, a community, a dynamic between two individuals. What about it is asking for a deeper look?’
Now a full New Orleanian, Bradley has found a collective of artists across different mediums with whom she has fellowship. When not working on a project at her studio, she teaches digital filmmaking at Loyola University and at the Sojourner Truth Neighborhood Center. She has even taken part in the city’s thriving film business, directing a 2017 episode of ‘Queen Sugar,’ Ava DuVernay’s TV series set in south Louisiana. For her second feature-length film, 2015’s ‘Cover Me,’ the Crescent City is again featured prominently. Developed with artist Tameka Norris, who plays the lead, the film is more experimental in structure than ‘Below Dreams,’ but has a similar, strong sense of place. Part of this can be attributed to the documentary feel of both films—the actors are mostly non-professionals and the production value is decidedly not Hollywood slick.
It’s not surprising, then, that Bradley easily adjusted to the documentary-short form for her next series of projects. 2016’s ‘Like’ and 2018’s ‘The Earth Is Humming’ were both produced by Field of Vision, the online visual journalism platform co-founded by Laura Poitras. Broadly, you could say that both works explore how humanity engages with larger forces. In ‘Like,’ Bradley looks at how digital workers (click-farm workers who generate Facebook likes) in Dhaka, Bangladesh, engage with the new economy. In ‘The Earth Is Humming,’ she looks at how residents of Tokyo, who live in one of the most active earthquake zones on the planet, prepare for disaster. Though the subject matter of these films bears little resemblance to her earlier narrative work, Bradley’s poetic visual language is still recognizable—her shot compositions, her use of long shots, extended takes and haunting music. She doesn’t allow genre categorization to cloud her approach to her work. ‘It’s a labeling system,’ she says. ‘It lets the public and distributors have a sense of where they want to place your work. As the person making the work, I could care less about that. What speaks to me first and foremost: What is it that I can offer in this present moment, whether it’s a scenario, a space, a community, a dynamic between two individuals. What about it is asking for a deeper look? What about its contrast or juxtaposition can illuminate a third identity or a third reality or a new layer of truth?’
‘There’s an obligation to teach people. I don’t want to just preach to the choir. How can all women connect with this idea of loneliness?’
Between the Field of Vision projects, Bradley returned to New Orleans to make ‘Alone,’ an affecting work that raised her profile considerably: the 13-minute black-and-white documentary won Sundance’s Short Film Jury Award in nonfiction in 2017 and was released by the New York Times’ Op-Docs series. The film tells the story of Aloné Watts, a young woman who is separated from her fiancé, Desmond, while he’s in prison awaiting trial. Bradley explores the impact of Desmond’s incarceration on Aloné with an intimate look at her loneliness and longing. On another level, the film demonstrates the inhumanity of this country’s criminal justice system. In one scene, shot as though from Aloné’s perspective, we see Desmond—in prison garb and shackles—behind a chain-link gate as he steps off the bus where inmates wait for their courthouse hearing and waves to Aloné/the camera. In a voiceover, Aloné says that she stands outside that gate every time there’s a hearing just to wave to Desmond when he exits the bus. It’s a heartbreaking scene. As with ‘Below Dreams,’ Bradley creates ways for the viewer to emotionally connect to the subject to give them a certain level of understanding. ‘There’s an obligation to teach people,’ says Bradley. ‘I don’t want to just preach to the choir. How can all women connect with this idea of loneliness? How can all women think about what it means to not be able to be with the person that you want to be with?’
At the time of publication, Bradley was still at work on AKA, a 10-minute film that is the first of an eventual trilogy. The subject of AKA is one close to her—how race factors into nuanced relationships between mothers and daughters who self-identify as being an interracial family—and, in the making of it, she continues to explore ways to get at deeper truths. ‘I’ve been thinking a lot about how to illustrate those internal spaces and external spaces in my work,’ she says. ‘‘Cover Me’ was the first time I was really trying to work through any inner dialogue in a public discourse. I’m tackling that again right now. I’m working with a lot of fantasy elements. I’m working with these split diopters, which is sort of like putting a half of a magnifying glass on your lens. It allows for two different people to be in relatively distant space from one another on the same plane, and the space is compacted. It felt like a perfect analogy for the relationships between mothers and daughters. They’re in the same place, but the space looks abstracted and strange. They’re distant and very close at the same time.’ – A presentation of Garrett Bradley’s ‘AKA’ is on view 17 May – 22 September at the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Bradley's ‘AMERICA’ is also presented in a multi-channel installation in the New Orleans Museum of Art exhibition ‘Bodies of Knowledge,’ on view 28 June – 13 October 2019 and will be included in a traveling US exhibition in 2020.