Why you should care
Because filmmaker Garrett Bradley refuses to narrow her lens.
Which is the more effective way to confront an issue: facts or emotion? For filmmaker Garrett Bradley, the question sets up a false contrast — one is, in fact, strengthened by the other. “You can watch a film and feel empathy, connect on some level,” the 31-year-old explains. “And that entry point, hopefully, can expand a conversation that might be divisive with statistics alone.”
That’s the hope Bradley has for Alone, her 13-minute documentary that won Sundance’s Short Film Jury Award in nonfiction last January. Afterward, it was released by The New York Times’ Op-Docs program, and it’s since been short-listed for an Academy Award nomination (nominees will be announced on Jan. 23). Alone is an intimate glimpse into the life of New Orleans resident Aloné Watts — a close friend of Bradley’s — as she endures the pain and isolation that come while she waits to marry her fiancé, Desmond Watson, while he’s incarcerated for a series of nonviolent crimes. Shot in black-and-white, the film is a study of contrasts: It’s a love story, a diary and an exploration of the prison industrial complex, all at the same time.
I do sometimes come up against the thinking that the flexibility of what I’m doing is impure.
Contrasts have always fascinated Bradley. Born to two painters in New York City’s Chinatown, she found herself a downtown kid in an uptown world when her mother sent her to a prep school on the Upper West Side. “That was the first time I’d been around people whose parents were wealthy — doctors, lawyers,” Bradley remembers. “It really informed my experience because it was such a juxtaposition, culturally, from what I was used to.” Operating in unfamiliar spaces became commonplace for her, and as a sophomore in high school — around the same time she reconnected with her father, whose marriage to her mother had ended when she was a baby — she found a coping mechanism: a video camera. “I was so used to being in odd environments,” she says. “The camera became a protective tool for me.”
Despite those early leanings, she didn’t consciously pursue filmmaking — not when she studied religion at Smith College, and not even as a film student at UCLA. “My parents being painters, I understood what it meant to prioritize your craft,” she says. “But even then, I wasn’t really thinking in terms of a career. I just followed my instincts.” Those instincts led her in 2012 to New Orleans, where she made her first feature film, Below Dreams. The tough-minded drama, following three 20-something locals — a recent NYC transplant, a single mother and a job seeker (Desmond Watson, later featured in Alone) — as they struggle to navigate young adulthood, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014, a trajectory Bradley still marvels at, given the film’s improvisational genesis. “The people who were a part of it must have trusted me on some level to keep going. But it was the kind of production I would walk away from now,” she says with a laugh.
Producer Lauren Domino, a frequent collaborator of Bradley’s — and her partner on Alone — offers a clear explanation for the faith of that cast and crew. “Garrett operates from an inner goodness that spreads to everyone on her team,” she says. “And her subjects are always treated as fully human, when there’s a tendency to ‘other’ in order to create empathy. As a producer, I always ask, ‘How can the content I’m involved in change systems?’ When I look at Garrett’s work, I’m like, ‘She’s doing it!’”
Though producer and director met as members of New Orleans’ tight-knit circle of female filmmakers, they bonded over a shared worldview. “We were both asking questions like, ‘What’s the nature of an art house film — a film that’s shown in a museum versus one that’s shown in theaters?’” Domino says. “Aren’t those distinctions preventing audiences from experiencing content they might enjoy because they’re told that a particular space is only for people who think a certain way?” For Bradley, a director whose visual techniques blur what’s traditionally seen in narrative and documentary films, she finds the rigid genre separation Domino describes to be a major hurdle. “You encounter very clear definitions of what a documentary is, what a narrative film is,” she says. “So, I do sometimes come up against the thinking that the flexibility of what I’m doing is impure.”
But is there a benefit to adhering to strict definitions of genre? Yes, says Kathleen Lingo, executive producer of The New York Times’ Op-Docs series. “It’s incredibly important for the audience,” she explains. Few filmmakers, she adds, have as much fluency as Bradley. “She’s so dexterous in terms of her talent. Not a lot of directors do both documentary and fiction — especially well. It’s a pretty short list.” But still, Lingo contends, specificity of genre has merit. “People want to know if what they’re seeing is documentary or a fiction film.” If it’s a hybrid, she says, “they’ll accept that, but you have to be transparent about it.”
Bradley remains mindful of the ethical separation between the genres she works in, but she’s also optimistic that she won’t be stifled, thanks in part to Ava DuVernay, director of the Oscar-winning 2014 film Selma. Last year, DuVernay recruited Bradley to direct an episode of her hit television series Queen Sugar. “Working with Ava was a next-level experience because she hasn’t let herself get pigeonholed in any one genre or platform,” Bradley says.
And there’s plenty across platforms in the pipeline for Bradley too, who is working on both feature-length projects and TV series, due in 2019. A follow-up to Alone, she adds, is also in the works. But one thing that’s not on her agenda: being limited by labels. “As long as I’m following the right ethics with the people I’m working with,” she says, “I’ll let everybody else decide what genre they want to call it.”