Garrett Bradley’s Time is a beautiful film about the ugly truth of US prisons

Collaging home movies and contemporary footage, Time is an impressionistic study of one woman’s attempts to see her husband released from jail.

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There’s a marvellous scene in Noah Baumbach’s 2014 comedy While We’re Young, in which Ben Stiller, as a documentary maker who has spent years working on a project about the prison system, tries to raise investment from a vacuous hedge fund manager. Told there are already 100 hours in the can, the businessman is shocked: “The movie’s 100 hours long?” Now, the director Garrett Bradley really has made a sobering film about mass incarceration, and she really did have more than 100 hours of footage at her disposal, though that wasn’t the plan to begin with.

In 2016, Bradley made Alone, a 12-minute documentary about a young woman whose partner is behind bars. During its production, she met Sibil Richardson, aka Fox Rich, a mother of six from Shreveport, Louisiana, who advocates on behalf of families torn apart by prison. Rich, a composed and charismatic figure, is seen in Alone likening the imprisonment of African Americans to slavery. “Instead of the whip,” she says, “they use Mother Time.”

Bradley decided to make a short focusing on Rich, whose husband Rob was almost a third of the way through his 60-year sentence for carrying out an armed robbery in which no one was hurt. She was poised to start editing when Rich produced a bag of VHS cassettes recorded over 18 years; they included everything from video diaries in which she bares her belly for the camera (she was pregnant with twins when Rob was arrested) to a swimming pool play date during which she tells another parent that her husband is “out of town”. This wealth of material – an embarrassment of Rich’s, you might say – killed off Bradley’s plans for the short but marked the beginning of Time.

Abundant home-movie archives have made documentaries such as Tarnation (2003) and Capturing the Friedmans (2003) not only possible but exemplary. But it’s how Bradley incorporates her treasure trove that is impressive. Time moves elegantly back and forth between those evocatively degraded video clips, with their cramped frame and muddy sound, and the pristine latter-day cinematography, which glows and blazes brightly. “God watches over the sparrows,” Rob tells his wife. “I know God will watch over us.” At the very least, He seems to have lit the movie.

[See also: Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks is sweet but lightweight]

In between running a car dealership in New Orleans and raising her children, Rich has put her money and energy into lobbying for her husband’s release. She doesn’t lose her cool, even when she is being fobbed off by the latest dismissive secretary of yet another neglectful official.

As if taking her lead from those high standards, Bradley never permits the film to fall below a level of plush impeccable beauty. The home-movie excerpts have been drained of colour to maintain consistency with the monochrome palette: its dense blacks and greys, its marble-like whites. “In documentary, there’s a question about the role of beauty and whether beauty can incite action in the same way that trauma can,” Bradley said last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “I’m very much in the camp of, ‘Yes, beauty can do that.’” The result is a handsome film about ugly truths.

In its framing, the movie isolates the family members, who are mainly shot in tight close-ups that recall the ennobling portraiture of Carl Dreyer or Pier Paolo Pasolini. Rarely is more than one person held in the same shot; for the most part, the camera keeps everyone locked up in their own solitary confinement. There is a single-mindedness to the narrative focus, too. Only once do we hear about explicit racism rather than the more insidious institutionalised variety. The effect of omitting other examples is not to sanitise the film but to address prejudice without lavishing any screen time on those who embody it. This isn’t their story.

Much of the small print of a more conventional documentary is absent. We learn that Rich was complicit in the robbery, though details of the crime are kept scarce and it isn’t until later that her prison sentence is mentioned. (Rich says only that “desperate people do desperate things”.) The film doesn’t show all six of her children, several of whom must have been born far into Rob’s prison term. Nor do we find out exactly how an inmate, jailed with no parole option, could end up being eligible for appeal. (The argument seems to be that Rob was poorly represented at trial, advised to reject a plea deal that could have cut his time by more than two-thirds.)

Instead, Bradley pieces together an impressionistic study of Rich’s life, day-to-day, decade-to-decade. A faltering piano-led score by Jamieson Shaw and Edwin Montgomery keeps musical vigil over the years as the crawling babies turn into bearded, statesmanlike young men wearing suits, accepting accolades and holding forth on the topic of criminal justice. Silver threads surface in Rich’s hair and the springy vitality of her youth gives way to a taut, studied tenacity. When Time is up, we have some idea of what it might be like for life to ebb away while a voice on the end of the phone says: “Please hold.” 

“Time” is on Amazon Prime from 16 October

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 16 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?

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