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Garrett Bradley’s tender and emotional documentary explores the unthinkable loss of long-term incarceration in America’s racist prison system.

Time Garrett Bradley documentary still 2

Sibil Fox Richardson - aka Rich Fox - is indomitable. A motivational speaker and car dealership owner, she has a confident, brazen demeanour and a skill for turning the events of her own life into compelling stories. She’s a performer, and a righteous one.

In many ways she’s an odd central subject for Time, Garrett Bradley’s 2020 documentary about the personal impact of America’s gargantuan, racist prison system. Fox, after all, sells the typical entrepreneurial creed that you can have it all if you work hard and believe in yourself, even while Time depicts the hole torn in her life by huge, impersonal evils that care nothing about individual qualities. It’s one of many contradictions worming through a film that is at once shockingly intimate and tightly controlled, real and sweetly cinematic.

In the late ‘90s, Sibil and her husband Robert Richardson - a Black couple in Shreveport, Louisiana - attempted to rob a bank. After their arrest, Sibil took a plea deal that saw her sentenced to 12 years in prison and released after three and a half. Robert, apparently advised against the deal, landed an astonishingly brutal 60-year sentence. By the time of the film’s production, he has been incarcerated in Angola State Penitentiary for almost 20 years and Sibil has raised six children with their grandmother.

It’s an unthinkable loss, and Time’s greatest strength is that it allows its contradictions to stand, laying bare its own inadequacy at representing such a devastating event. Bradley blends together her own crisp, present-day black-and-white footage with miniDV footage shot by Sibil herself over the preceding decades, also drained of colour, creating an asynchronous poem with absence at its heart.

At first blush, it does not appear to be about mass incarceration, as Ava DuVernay’s 13th was. Sibil compares the prison system to slavery and she is herself an abolitionist, but its personal focus and lyrical style prevent Time from engaging directly with the carceral state on a systemic level. It’s telling, perhaps, that Barack Obama, under whose presidency little changed for Black people imprisoned in America, named it one of his films of the year.

But it’s not about the entire system. Instead it’s a tender and emotional film focused on only one of that system’s countless tragedies. In its strongest scenes, we watch Sibil fruitlessly waiting by her phone to hear from judges and their secretaries. It’s this time that Time excels in representing; the empty time left by the social death of incarceration.

The film may be sentimental and at times it’s as performative as its subject. But it knows its enemies – and it knows how to make visible the pain they’ve caused.

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