Much of the footage of Garrett Bradley’s Time comes from its subjects. At the beginning, we see a clip in grainy miniDV from Sibil Fox Richardson as she records a video diary years ago, addressing the camera as if recording a vlog as she details her perseverance in dealing with difficulties. Gradually, that hardship is revealed to be her living as a single mother while her husband, Rob, sits in jail with a 60-year sentence for an armed robbery he committed when they were young and desperate to save their clothing business. Sibil herself was the driver and took a plea deal, but the Louisiana justice system dropped the hammer on Rob, giving him a near-maximum sentence.

The montages of Sibil’s home videos that follow throughout the film thus become her way of documenting the life that Rob cannot live. She films as much of the minutiae of childrearing as she can, ranging from days at amusement parks to the hassle of driving the kids to school. The context lends a heartbreaking desperation to her copious filming, particular as Bradley quickly jumps forward in time so that the twins whom Sibil notes are on the way in the opening diary can be seen in clips aging rapidly from infants to toddlers to pre-teens, and in only a few minutes the distortion of time between those on the inside and those in the free world is communicated to brutal effect.

The greatest indication of time’s passage, though, comes with the material Bradley herself filmed of Sibil and her children. Compared to the full-frame, low-resolution video of Sibil’s home tapes, Bradley shoots in hyper-clear, widescreen HD, her own black-and-white showing rich contrast and exceptional detail. The sharper images reflect a woman much different from the sweatshirt-clad, pregnant and quietly despairing woman we first encountered. The years Sibil has spent providing for her family and working to release Rob have turned her into a professional, a car dealer in New Orleans as well as an author and activist, all the while as she has educated herself to take on a legal case that she notes high-priced lawyers fleeced her for years while telling her there was nothing to do. This Sibil is a practiced public speaker and saleswoman, always clad in business attire and so accustomed to the years spent on-camera that her private tapes have helped to forge a woman who is constantly “on” for private recordings as much as public interactions.

Sibil is remarkable in these segments, swapping flawlessly between tones of sales confidence when talking to prospective buyers, pointedly submissive and grateful language and tone to anyone who works at a courthouse or prison, and a more forceful, practiced cadence when she does book readings from her memoir. Among other things, Time offers a concise illustration of code-switching in how easily Sibil can shift her entire persona depending on the people to whom she is speaking. Only on rare occasion does the woman let her guard down, most strikingly in a scene where she calls a courthouse expecting an update on Rob’s case only to be told that the clerk handling it has not even contacted the prison, which prompts Sibil to kindly and passively thank the woman for her time before hanging up and flying into a rage at how these people don’t care about the lives they hold in their hands. Sibil’s children, too, have grown up under the weight of their father’s incarceration and have developed their own strengths as public speakers; Freedom can be seen running for student government as an eloquent and calm debater, while twin brother Justus provides some of the film’s most bracingly succinct philosophical summaries as he reflects on how time is what we make of it.

As Bradley cuts back and forth from this new material and Sibil’s home videos, she begins to scramble the sense of time, flitting back and forth so that, say, a clip of the couple’s oldest son as a toddler can rub up against a scene of him graduating college. By arranging the material outside of a linear order, Bradley creates a completely displaced sense of time, one equally attuned to capturing the fluid state of memory for Sibil and, more distressingly, how Rob can only experience his family’s lives as a movie, a collection of other people’s memories that he should have been there to feel firsthand.

The recent turn in the true crime genre away from identifying uncaught monsters and toward an examination of the corruption and biases within our penal system have belatedly helped to popularize dialogues about the nature of America’s prison-industrial complex, but Time takes a different tack than documentaries focused on the potential locking-up of the innocent. This film and its subjects freely acknowledge that Rob committed the crime that sent him to jail, but it asks about the fairness of a system that could casually send a man to prison for life merely as a deterrent to other undesirables. By focusing so much on the lives of those that prisoners leave behind, the film illustrates the reverberating traumas of incarceration that echo across generations.

Documentaries on the failures of American infrastructure and social nets tend to be horizontal, panoramas that take in the breadth of the intersecting inadequacies of the safety net, discrimination and austerity. This is true of the best of them like the work of Frederick Wiseman or Hoop Dreams as it is the wildly variable quality of new glut of miniseries in the streaming era. But Time compresses its own expanse of decades into an impressionistic vision of eternal present as experienced by a family for whom generations have been defined by a single error in judgment. The past is never past when even children not yet born when Rob and Sibil committed their crime are shaped at all times by the aftershocks of it, so that as the film portrays how quickly they grow up without their father, it also gives a sense of the way the boys grow up precisely in reaction to the constant pressures of that legacy and attempting to overcome it. Crucially, we do not get to see Rob outside of a few old clips of his pre-imprisonment days until the end of the film, defining a man’s entire life by its absence, creating a living ghost who must be made corporeal by the act of wishing him present. That he exerts such a powerful pull on the film is a testament less to his own spirit than the dogged, decades-long work of his family never to forget the man that society was content to toss into a hole.

An elegy for the human costs of America’s prison-industrial complex that is as much an impressionistic tone poem as a passionate call to action.
90 %
Urgent but poetic
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