'Time': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
'Time'
Of the essence.

Helmer Garrett Bradley combines new footage and video diaries in her portrait of a Louisiana woman's tireless 20-year effort to secure her husband's release from prison.

In Time, Garrett Bradley's concise and impressionistic account of love and waiting, of the American justice system and the fight to keep a family whole, the years flow backward and forward, eddying and receding. Sometimes the world stands still: A woman holds her breath while, at the other end of a telephone line, a judge's office might or might not have news about her husband's latest appeal of a 60-year prison sentence.

That woman is Sibil Fox Richardson, aka Fox Rich, and she's the blazing center of this true saga's solar system; in her direct orbit are the six sons she's raising while their father, Robert, serves time in the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Bradley — who was second unit director on Ava DuVernay's When They See Us and whose work includes the fiction-nonfiction hybrid Below Dreams and Op-Docs for The New York Times (which co-produced Time with Laurene Powell Jobs and Davis Guggenheim's Concordia Studio) — met her subject while working on the 2017 Op-Docs episode Alone. The director then began making a film about the New Orleans businesswoman and activist, one that took an unexpected turn when, after filming was done, Rich offered Bradley 20 years' worth of videos that she and her boys had been making for Robert.

The repercussions of mass incarceration are very much the subject of this bracing time capsule, but unlike such notable documentaries as Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live In, DuVernay's 13th and Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made in America, Bradley's film isn't directly concerned with legalities and policy details. In this story of crime and punishment, even the particulars of the case at hand are painted with quick, broad strokes: a young married couple in financial straits, a bank robbery that Rich calls an act of desperation — and about which she has nothing else to say. (Clearer from the press notes than from the film itself: She served three and a half years for her role in the robbery; unlike her husband, she accepted a plea bargain.)

That refusal to explain is what's most daring about Time, most radical — that and the way it places the intensity of love, both familial and carnal, front and center. There is no comforting logic here, the film asserts, no handy way to make sense of a nation's ingrained racism, the disproportionate penalties for black defendants and the fallout on their communities. Time's purposeful lack of connect-the-dots narrative can at moments be frustrating or distracting. But from the lacunae and ellipses, the leaps across years, the filmmaker builds something gripping. Those gaps in the factoid surface are Time's language no less than the beauty, alternately rough and smooth, of its black-and-white imagery or the matriarchal fury of its central figure.

The film's details tend toward the poetic and tantalizing, like the tidbit of family history that Rich offers via voiceover narration: Her grandmother was the housekeeper for Hank Williams' mother. Rich's mother is interviewed for the doc and expresses stern reminders of personal responsibility. And — paradoxically for someone who Rich cites as an inspiration, and whom she credits with instilling in her a can-do optimism — she also voices a terse skepticism, specifically about the marriage that remains essential to her daughter's life and identity. "My passenger seat is empty," Rich beckons, from behind the wheel, to Robert across the video miles.

Rich was 16 when she and Robert became sweethearts in Shreveport, and when we first see her in the film she's a radiant young woman, pregnant with twins, trying to figure out where to place the camera for the video she's making for her imprisoned spouse. A few minutes later, there are strands of gray in her hair and she's a confident middle-aged business professional, calling the shots for a commercial in which she'll appear.

There's plenty of in-the-moment joy in the story's back-and-forth: the Richardson boys as adorable kindergartners, and then a bit older, splashing in a backyard pool. And there's the inevitable poignancy of passing years: those same boys as poised young men in high school, in college, at work. In voiceover, sometimes her sons say what Rich chooses not to, as when one of them comments on the deep wells of pain beneath the family's stoic front. In the rare instances when his mother's undimmed rage breaks through the polished surface, it's as much a force of nature as her undying love.

The film is no monument but a vibrant cubist portrait, alive with shadings of Rich's vulnerability and the psychic bruises from dealing with an indifferent correctional system, expensive lawyers and unresponsive courts. Bradley and editor Gabriel Rhodes (The Witness, 1971, The Tillman Story) have done a magnificent job of interweaving deeply personal videos with the new material shot by Zac Manuel, Justin Zweifach and Nisa East. Judiciously used aerial shots capture the enormity and the emotional distance of the prison complex, with its forbidding X-shaped buildings, where Robert is an inmate.

Besides helping to link the old and new footage, the black-and-white cinematography lends it the sheen and depth of a historic record, a resonance that's heightened by the archival piano tracks of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, a nonagenarian Ethiopian nun and composer whose work, on the basis of the ethereal selections here, should be more widely known.

At a crucial point in Time, the score gives way to the sounds of traffic and other noise from the street, heard at a remove while Rich is on hold with a court clerk, waiting for word on the fate of her husband, her marriage, her family. She's practiced in this, but that doesn't make it easy. Beneath her composed expression surges a life story, captured here in bright, sharp facets, not reduced to a neat summary.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Production companies: Concordia Studio presents in association with
The New York Timesan Outer Piece, Concordia Studio and Hedgehog Films production
Director: Garrett Bradley
Producers: Lauren Domino, Kellen Quinn, Garrett Bradley

Executive producers: Laurene Powell Jobs, Davis Guggenheim, Nicole Stott, Rahdi Taylor, Kathleen Lingo
Directors of photography: Zac Manuel, Justin Zweifach, Nisa East
Editor: Gabriel Rhodes
Composers: Jamieson Shaw, Edwin Montgomery
Sales: Cinetic

80 minutes