An impressionistic portrait of love and waiting.
At the time of my writing this review, January’s Sundance Film Festival is likely all but forgotten by most people. Writers, directors, actors, and PR folks have moved on.
In light of our current confrontation with time, however, it feels appropriate to allow distance between my viewing and writing about the film Time, directed by Garrett Bradley, who won the Sundance documentary directing prize for her efforts.
The film has since had many hours to marinate in my mind. Much like a medicinal tea, the longer the images have had to steep, the more potent the flavor and healing properties have become.
Bradley, whose previous work won a Sundance jury award and was shortlisted for an Academy Award, offers with Time a more impressionistic release than her previous work, thanks to her collaboration with Sibil Fox Richardson (aka Fox Rich), whose home-video diary brings the story to life. The documentary blends black and white footage from the archive of Rich’s VHS tapes with new black and white footage for the film, blurring the lines between what Bradley directed and what her subject directed. Paired with a soundtrack from Ethiopian nun Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, a rich piano score underlines the spiritual flavor of Time.
The film follows Rich, a mother of six sons and wife to Robert, who was sentenced to prison for 60 years in the ’90s over a bank robbery. While the couple both participated in the same robbery, Fox took a plea deal and served only three years.
The story begins with footage from Fox, where she marks the first day her husband was sentenced. Instantly, timelines are introduced: Rich is 22 weeks pregnant with twins, and has been out of jail for a week and a half, since May 24. Other timelines emerge and blur: They met at age 16; Robert is sentenced in 1999; in March 2013 they move to Louisiana; they are allowed two visits a month for two hours at a time; their children grow from babies to teenagers to adults. Twenty-one years are covered in an 80-minute film, but the timeline doesn’t follow the norms of the way we experience time. Over the course of the film, the idea of time, in general, begins to feel obsolete.
Time moves from the present, where Bradley leads filming, and the past, with the use of Fox’s home footage, to the hope of the future, where Robert is released. Soon, the only way to tell which moment they’re in is through the visual cues in the body: wrinkles in the face, the shift of a jawline, the growth of a child. On the phone with a case manager, the film focuses on Rich’s hair, nails, face. In these scenes, Rich hears the same messages over and over: There is no update on her husband’s case. It is clear that dealing with the prison bureaucracy eats her up inside. “Thank you for your time,” she repeats to them using her nice-girl voice, seemingly phony to all but the receiver on the other end. Using sarcasm in this way seems to be the only way she can express her frustration at a cruel justice system without letting her anger affect Robert’s chance at release.
For Rich’s family, the passage of time, which seems to hold still, is felt as a loss for her children. Her kids don’t have a father at home, and her own work and personal life is a juggling act, raising six children as a single mother, on top of managing her husband’s case and fighting for his release. In one scene, Rich admits she doesn’t want to wait anymore; and in another, that she is an abolitionist and does not believe that prisons should exist at all.
Film can be a powerful tool to evoke sympathy or empathy, and facing the violent shadows of our prison industrial complex is important; but it can begin to feel sensationalized as shows and movies toe the line between trauma porn and sincere storytelling. Time tells a story of incarceration without relying on the cheap tricks that a lot of media around prisons seem eager to execute. Time feels more like poetry in motion, or a memory held in the body. It is less concerned about the details of the case than it is about the moods it leaves behind.
I left the theater in a dream-like state, feeling fuzzy about what my heart was telling my mind, but knowing it was writing down an impression. Over time, the messages of the film have sprouted into new thoughts and feelings: Time spent in prison is time spent stagnant, not only for the person incarcerated, but for their family and friends who have lost a loved one. It is a grief different from death, but the loss is still impactful in the way it stunts the growth of a beloved family and community.
“Desperate people do desperate things,” Rich says as she talks to a congregation about their robbery. “It’s as simple as that.” Spending time behind bars for a robbery did little to address the circumstances that led the couple to commit the crime in the first place. It also did not do anything to restore the lost assets.
As the film demonstrates, Rich was justified in her fight to free Robert. Ultimately, her perseverance paid off.
Amazon acquired Time in late February.
Brinley Froelich is a writer, yoga instructor and embroidery artist. She is the co-founder of Decarcerate Utah. Find more of her work at www.booforever.com/