A Life on Hold: Garrett Bradley’s “Time”
Garrett Bradley’s movie titles convey big, broad concepts: “Alone,” (2017) “America,” (2019) and Time (2020). What is there to say for such vast topics? Well, plenty. But saying something concrete and focused is another matter that these three attempt: “Alone” gathers strong family reactions when one of Bradley’s friends announces her engagement to a prisoner; “America” generates evocative representations — both mundane and extraordinary — of Black life missing in film history; and Time, the most successful of the bunch, zeros in on the loved ones effected by a deeply flawed prison system. Where the prior works are either slight or amorphous, her sophomore feature achieves an equanimity of form and content. She tells a personal story to illuminate the larger issue of prison reform — and at the same time making it known that such individual stories don’t solve institutional problems.
Desperate and sinking underneath bills, Rob and Sibil “Fox Rich” Richardson of New Orleans robbed a bank in 1997. Immediately apprehended by the police, Fox was in prison for three-and-a-half years, while Rich continues to serve a 60-year sentence. Time follows Fox, her six kids, and the rest of her family as they wait — and continue to wait — for her husband’s release. Both the protracted anticipation and the sense of life lurching on Garrett evokes in lyrical black-and-white cinematography, melding her footage with the 18 years of diaries and home movies Fox recorded for her husband. Though Time makes room for several POVs, including Rob’s mom and his twin sons born after he was incarcerated, Fox is the central figure. We see her in various roles, identities, and performances: mother, wife, employee, abolitionist. They all say the same thing: I’m a victim too. In the diaries, she’s in close-up — confident, strong, loving — talking to her husband. Matched graphically, years later, she’s in front of a camera once more, a car saleswoman shooting an advertisement and talking up her hometown. This footage, Garret’s, is ruminative, for the camera delicately pushes in and out, seeming to both read the thoughts of everyone on screen and maintain a respectful distance.
Time is contemplative but never too cerebral. The Rich family and their footage give the movie an emotional core that anchors Garrett’s experiments in editing and duration. The symbiosis between subject matter and style reaches the first apex 20 minutes into the film: heard on the soundtrack, Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s piano playing temporarily stops, and the camera ever so slowly zooms in, becoming a close up of Fox in profile. A serious look sets on her face while calling the judge’s office for Rob’s ruling. She’s put on hold for what seems like forever, the sensation punctuated by Garrett intercutting shots of her son Justus in the same room, deep in thought and fidgeting with a curtain rod. The scene is uncomfortably long. This is the film, and Fox’s life at that point, in a nutshell. There’s nothing new, just simply waiting.
The second peak, of form informing content, occurs in the last ten minutes of Time, a dream-like sequence filmed in slo-mo after Rob is given clemency (something the documentary never explicitly says). Garrett rewinds her footage and the diaries, like at the end of François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series, to consider these moments that culminate at this very instant. It’s an ecstatic release to reflect a literal one.
Time, that crucial component of the seventh art, is Garrett Bradley’s focal point. Her movie considers the weight and feel of it, and, seen in the slivers of video diaries mixed into the film, how time can leave a visual record. Pulling this off so gracefully indicates that Bradley’s coming into her own as a filmmaker. Working with an accessible yet formally deft approach to non-fiction filmmaking, she’s a new empathetic and caring voice that comes at a time when American cinema is sorely lacking in one.