Oscars 2021: Garrett Bradley's intimate, haunting documentary Time spans 18 short years in 81 long minutes

Time is an encapsulation of both the power of fierce love as well as the pain of memory – of months and years slipping by excruciatingly slow, and simultaneously a little too fast.

Poulomi Das April 20, 2021 16:54:14 IST
Oscars 2021: Garrett Bradley's intimate, haunting documentary Time spans 18 short years in 81 long minutes

Still from Time

“Time is what you make of it,” says an almost 18-year-old Freedom in Garrett Bradley’s intimate, haunting Oscar-nominated documentary, Time. Sibil Fox Richardson – who goes by Fox Rich – was three months pregnant with Freedom and his twin brother Justus when her husband Rob was sentenced to 60 years in prison with no parole for an armed robbery in Louisiana. 

It was a crime they committed together after falling on hard times; she was the getaway driver and Rob was part of the group that tried robbing the bank. “Desperate people do desperate things. It’s as simple as that,” she says at one point in the documentary. Sibil accepted a plea bargain and was sentenced for 12 years in prison; she served three-and-a-half years. Rob was not that lucky, a testament to how African-Americans have been routinely oppressed by the country’s unforgiving legal system.

Effectively, when Freedom and Justus were born, their father was behind bars. He remained incarcerated for the first 18 years of their life. Bradley’s Time chronicles with heartrending detail what the Richardson family, Sibil and her six sons, made of the time they were forced to be apart as a family.

It is an encapsulation of both the power of fierce love as well as the pain of memory – of months and years slipping by excruciatingly slow, and simultaneously a little too fast. 

In about 81 minutes, Time spans almost 18 years. Bradley, who won the US Documentary prize at Sundance Film Festival last year, pegs Time as an ultimate act of collaboration. That is to say, she makes a film on the Richardson family not as a curious bystander but with them, involving them every step of the way. The gaze is as personal as it is political. To that effect, the documentary, shot entirely in black and white, combines archival camcorder home footage that Sibil of the events in the family’s life that Rob missed over the years and footage that Bradley captures of the family in the present, before the verdict that could send Rob home. 

The dual perspectives of the present and the past that shadows their future prove to be a powerful record of the very many ways the family holds it together while constantly being at the brink of falling apart. It captures, more than anything, how the passage of time moulds absence into an endless wound. Time is suffused with the urgency that allows it to be a record of a lifetime but its frames are also infused with the kind of hurt, longing, and hope that render every second of it alive. For a film that is about the ticking clock, Bradley, an emphatic, sharp filmmaker, achieves the claustrophobia of stagnation throughout, that precise feeling of being unable to extract yourself from that one same spot even when the world around seems to be moving on and changing at its convenience.

That dissonance is heightened by the evidence of time in the documentary. Sibil ages from a baby-faced, hopeful newly-wed to determined middle-aged activist who won’t give up. “Success is the best revenge,” she mutters to herself time and again whenever she is reminded that the American legal system is not conditioned to value human life that looks a certain way. As do her six sons, who grow up to become sensitive men and excelling at studies (one completes dental school, the other has hopes of reforming the criminal justice system, another moment captures Sibil proudly looking on as her son effortlessly learns French) despite the circumstances that would have otherwise gone on to define them. In the present, the Richardson family looks unmoored from the legacy of their pain. The contrast in their past and present points to how the family has picked itself up and made something out of themselves, a direct counter to the reform that legal punishment promises but never delivers.

In one of the most powerful points in the documentary, Sibil compares prison to “modern-day slavery.” Time is both a record of that injustice as well an imagination of what 20 years of a family’s life would have looked like if they were never victims of that injustice in the first place. In the closing moments, Bradley reverses the hands of time through Sibil’s home footage, going back to that time before Rob Richardshon was an inmate and before Sibil had to raise her six sons on her own. It is the time when they were just Sibil and Rob, two people in love.

Through the years, the purpose of cinema has been to capture life. Bradley captures cinema in the brutalities of the life of an African-American family. By effect, Time ends up unlike anything cinema has managed to capture before – a reckoning that is at once the loudest mourning you might have ever witnessed.  

Oscars 2021 will air in India on 26 April.

(Also read — Oscars 2021: Romanian documentary Collective studies the multifarious factors at play in shaping a democracy) 

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