Garrett Bradley’s filmmaking style has been praised as “a deft blend of the dreamlike and the down-to-earth” that “resists simplistic distinctions between documentary and narrative filmmaking.” A native New Yorker who lives in New Orleans, Bradley released her debut film, “Below Dreams,” in 2014. Her most recent work, “Alone,” was featured in The New York Times Op-Doc series and screens at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival, 12pm on Tuesday, Oct. 17 at the New Orleans Advocate. Bradley sat down to talk with KnowLouisiana’s Brian Boyles.
Brian Boyles: I remember meeting you a few years back through Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick. How did you get to know them?
Garrett Bradley: I was on an airplane coming from Los Angeles, going to New Orleans, and a teacher who I had been an assistant for when I was in graduate school was on the plane. He was going to New Orleans to shoot a movie. He said “You really need to meet these two people.” This had to be back in 2012, maybe even 2011. When I met them it seemed like a really natural connection. My parents are artists, and I could relate to Keith and Chandra being partners in crime in their art and also having a family life and all of those things were intertwined with one another. I learned a lot about the city just in observing how they had been documenting it over a very long period of time ,and how their medium and their approach to their own city had changed, aesthetically and in terms of how the process had changed for them.
BB: I thought about your connection to them as I watched Alone and Like. What seems to come through in their work, and what overlaps with what you’ve done, is the sense of the dignity for the subject, particularly those in underserved, oppressed situations.
GB: When people talk about quote/unquote “underprivileged” communities and what it means to be an artist documenting that, I think it’s a bit of a cop out to say that you’re just sort of giving voice to those communities simply by documenting them. I think that the question really is what element of their voice are you expanding on? That involves a conversation that is energetic, as well just an actual dialogue that happens with the people you’re working with.
It isn’t about poverty. What specifically about that person, or that family, are you wanting to share? I think that that has always been, for me, the most important part of what I’m doing. For instance, with “Alone,” it wasn’t so much about incarceration, it wasn’t so much about being a single mother, or being quote/unquote “underprivileged”—it was about love. It was about the absence of love and how one maneuvers through the world without that physical privilege.
That’s something super, super specific and I think that the more specific an artist can be with what they’re going for, the more you’re veering away from these generalities that I think become very problematic.
BB: That specificity focuses on something universal. However foreign the context may be to viewers, whatever they cannot identify with it, people can understand love. That creates a bond with the subject.
GB: Exactly. You know, you can’t really just make those assumptions or guesses, at least with filmmaking. Photography is somewhat of a different process because you don’t necessarily have time to sit and get to know every person that you shoot. That’s where energy is important. This is something I talk a lot about with my students. How do you know when you’re being exploitative?
You can read about how James Nachtwey, for instance, the war photographer, how he handles this when he goes to Rwanda and war torn countries. So much of it is not moving too fast, and letting people know that you’re safe with your presence, with your physical presence. As human beings, that’s when our animalistic nature comes in, when you’re being exploitative, when you’re doing something that feels selfish, that’s not connected to that person. And they know, too.
That’s not something, I think, that can always be taught or can even be explained. It’s something that reveals itself in that moment and really is a mirror to where you’re heart is and where your intention is.
BB: How do you feel you’ve evolved towards that? Is it something you’ve always felt comfortable with or are there certain works that you’ve done or projects you’ve participated in that you feel brought you closer to that place?
GB: I don’t think there was any definitive moment in my life that helped me figure out a method. I think I’ve always been really curious about people and I’ve always loved people. I’ve always enjoyed human beings. I think, again, it really comes down to your body language and where you’re putting the camera. Are you moving in really closely on someone very quickly before you make eye contact with them? When you have a physical camera in front of you it becomes very clear about what part of that you find the most interesting, you know? Maybe it’s just having empathy, knowing what someone would feel vulnerable about, and avoiding that part of it.
BB: There’s a scene in “Like”” [Bradley’s 2016 short on so-called “click-farms” in Bangladesh) that, for me, gets to why your vision is distinctive. Two of the men are crossing some train tracks and you stay there for a long time. I’m not sure how to put my finger on why, but that shot makes it easy to understand that these are just people trying to make a buck, going about their business. As far as shooting, where are you right there and where is that energy that you’re talking about?
GB: I’ll start off by just saying that when we got to Dhaka, we had about a week and a half to document this world that had a reputation of being underground, even though it wasn’t actually illegal on any level. What that meant was that it was very difficult to get people to actually want to be on camera and to show what they were doing. There was a real sense of urgency and anxiety around, “Okay, we’ve come all the way here, are we going to actually get anything?”
I was really surprised to get there and realize it was a bunch of teenagers who were super free and were just liberating themselves from physical labor or the expectations of their parents wanting them to be doctors or lawyers. For that shot, one of the guys that we were working with brought us there and he was talking to some of his friends. The importance of observation and what filmmaking allows you to do is, the longer you’re looking, the quicker your expectations and your assumptions can start to reveal themselves and diminish all at once. You have a series of different ideas of what it is that you’re seeing but the longer you look, the more those things may change.
BB: There’s this shocking moment in Alone when she tells her family she’s getting married. She goes inside the house mic’d, but you stay outside, so the viewer can only hear it. There’s a lot about that film that’s visually beautiful and also classic in a way that can make it feel like a feature, but I don’t think an actress could have ever performed that scene.
GB: That scene in particular goes back to what we were talking about in terms of choosing the elements that you love about people. Being as specific as you can about what it is that you’re exploring and sharing with the public. I knew, as a filmmaker, that her relationship with her mom wasn’t a good one. I anticipated that conversation being one that was not going to be easy for Alone. Knowing that, and knowing her mom, I knew that seeing what was going to happen was less important than what was gonna be said. If we saw what was going on in that space, it would become a spectacle and we wouldn’t understand what the real takeaway was, which was that she had no one to go to.
I think that what was more important was the isolation of that space and just hearing the reaction. Everyone has different responses to that scene. You can interpret it in a variety of ways. There’s validity to the idea that that anger was actually coming from a place of love and frustration. It also was sort of saying, “How is it that you can do everything in your power to keep your kid out of the system, and they still find a way to be entangled in it, in some kind of way?”
Just the anger, on a global level, that’s what that scene was really about. If we had seen her, it would have added elements that I don’t feel like were necessary.
BB: When you finish a short like that, is there a part of you that wants to go further with that storyline, or is there a part of you that always knew that what it needed was this short amount of time to compress everything?
GB: I’m thinking more in terms of what other qualities of incarceration do we need to start talking about? How can we start to remove ourselves from the statistical, numerical, masculine point of view on incarceration and explore the more nuanced qualities of what that reality looks like? What does it look like from a kid’s perspective? What does it look like from a woman’s perspective who is in a completely different situation than Alone was in? I think the more we can diversify the issues, the more we can start to see it’s different colors and people can connect to a variety, and the reality of a diverse perspective.
Visit http://garrettabradley.com/ to learn more.