It’s an old narrative device and a very effective one: to provide the day or month without mentioning the year. Garrett Bradley’s new feature-length documentary, Time (on Amazon Prime), begins with a woman telling the camera that it is 23 July and that she has been out of prison for a week and one day. On 24 May she says she is pregnant with twins and has been for 22 weeks. A little later she talks about a marriage, but we still don’t know where to place it, or her, on a chronology. We are seeing time in close-up and we don’t know what time it is. The woman is not really talking to us, of course; she is talking to herself, and, we learn, to her absent husband. She doesn’t know she will be in Bradley’s film. But then, she is a diarist of sorts, and diarists are always waiting for someone like us to show up. In time.
Bradley met the woman we see on screen while making a short film in 2016. She is Sibil Fox Richardson. Afterwards, Sibil gave Bradley a bag containing a hundred hours’ worth of home movies. They show her at home and in public meetings, on the phone and at work. Sibil is always herself, or rather she is always performing several different selves and yet never not present as an actual person. Bradley decided to make a longer film that would combine her footage with Sibil’s old material. The difference between the amateur and the professional stuff (shot by Zac Manuel, Justin Zweifach and Nisa East) is considerable, but it becomes clear that it is a virtue, since the story so plainly needs both styles. The film feels like an act of assisted memory rather than any kind of deliberate observation, and that is why it is able to take us so deeply into lived time.
We do get some proper dates as we go along. Sibil was born in 1971; she met her future husband, Robert, when she was 16. We never find out when they got married, but we do know that they opened a clothes store in Shreveport, Louisiana; that they ran out of money when an investor pulled out of the business; and that they decided to solve their problems by robbing a bank. That was in 1997. ‘Desperate people do desperate things,’ Sibil says over the intro.
They were caught immediately, and, as a result of bad and expensive legal advice, Robert was sentenced to sixty years imprisonment. Sibil got twelve, reduced in the end to three and a half. (Sibil and Robert are both black.) The sentences were handed down in 1999. For the next twenty years, Robert was in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, and Sibil was at home with their six children. In 2013 she moved from Shreveport to New Orleans. At certain points in the film Sibil says it’s been ‘seven years since’ the robbery, or ‘fifteen years now’ since Robert went to jail, but time shifts constantly, and these shifts usually aren’t flagged. She looks very young, then she is almost middle-aged; she has straight hair, then it is curly. She speaks modestly and penitently in public; and then in front of a different audience she is like a rock star, expertly performing her grief. She looks after the children; we see them growing up and then shrinking to a younger age.
The film is very conscious of how mobile the mind can be in relation to time, and how good the medium is at keeping up with this roving. We are in a car driving down a dirt road towards a lake. The camera cuts to and lingers on a cloudy sky, and from there moves to an aerial view of a penitentiary. It is 1999 and the road leads to prison. Towards the end of the film the sequence is reversed: prison, clouds, dirt road, lake. But this time, we are retreating from the water, not approaching it. This is not just a flipped version of the earlier shot; it feels like (but cannot be) a cancellation.
The same effect is repeated a few moments later. It is 2019. Robert has finally been released, and after the family reunion, with many happy embraces and shrieks and smiles, we see him quietly looking at his children. Or rather looking at the memories he doesn’t have, indeed that no one could have, because they are represented by pieces of film that were shot forward and are now running in reverse. A football bounces along the ground and jumps into the arms of a little boy. Two slightly older boys are riding their bikes in a large circle – backwards. A boy hops backwards into the top half of a bunk bed; another flies out of a swimming pool and onto the pool’s edge. These shots, which once showed real events, now show only the unmaking of events. They tell us that Robert is thinking about time, but they don’t suggest time is anything like as obliging as film. Bradley’s movie almost constitutes a visual epigram: doing time means not knowing what it does to your loved ones while you’re doing it.
One of the most startling aspects of the film – it is constantly in evidence but doesn’t stop being startling – is Sibil’s good humour, her energy and charm. We have a sense of the pain and anger she is concealing behind this projection, but it isn’t just a front: it has to be real to serve its function as a method of survival. Sibil says as much, and in one amazing scene we see her composure coming apart in a kind of slither from surprise to irony to anger. The scene is anticipated by several others. In each one Sibil is shown calling an official to find out whether there has been any progress with Robert’s appeal. Sibil speaks of ‘the hope you’ve been giving yourself all year long’ and then revises this to ‘the lie you’ve been giving yourself all year long’. Sibil, usually calling from her office in a skyscraper, needs to talk to a Miss Sandra or a Miss Marcy or a Miss Judy. The news is always the same: there is no news. Sibil is impeccably polite, and quietly grateful for all the help these ladies are not giving. In the last of these scenes, the lady – the office, the judge, the system – offers nothing, not even the pretence of having tried to do something. Sibil sits back and smiles, saying that she is amazed people can treat other human beings like this. Her smile continues, expressing an unshakeable disbelief. Then she allows herself a moment of pure pain and rage, hits her desk and shouts. And then she recovers her calm and goes back to work. ‘Bless me, Lord,’ she says, not asking for benediction but returning to her amazement, which can be lived with in a way that anger cannot.
Sibil’s mother reflects that, at the time she was sentenced, Sibil didn’t understand how much she (and, by extension, all non-subservient black people) was disliked, and that she consequently failed to dress and act like a crazy, helpless person. ‘She wouldn’t listen,’ the mother says. But this same mother, commenting on the success and stability of Sibil’s children – the oldest is training as a dentist, another is in college, the others are doing well in school – says: ‘I think she set the tone.’ Sibil’s tone is the subject of the movie, and tone is an interesting, unexpected means of coping with time. ‘Time is what you make of it,’ one of her boys says. There are all kinds of ways in which this is not true. Time all too often has a mind of its own. But Sibil, assisted by Robert’s patience and her children’s wit and hard work, does manage to keep it moving in her direction.