There’s a pair of shattering moments at the heart of the 2016 short documentary Alone, directed by Garrett Bradley, that opens the door to the world the filmmaker complicates and expounds upon in her new, feature-length documentary Time. (Bradley’s latest, which receives a limited theatrical run this week, launches on Amazon Prime Streaming on October 16th.) The first comes when the young woman at its center, Aloné Watts, reveals to her family that she plans to marry Desmond Watson, a man in prison. We have already seen her trying on a wedding dress; we have already heard her say, in a voiceover, “I am beautiful in this dress.” But then Aloné reveals her intentions to her family, and something breaks — loudly. Bradley’s camera rests on the image of Watts’s family home for the extent of the scene. But the sound creates a gap: the voices we hear hit us as if we are inside, at Aloné’s side, when she breaks the news. And what we hear, as loudly and immediately as if they were being hurled in our direction, are screams. A streak of reprimands, heartbreak, and astonished doubt as white-hot as a lightning bolt. All of it born of fear; you can hear it in each voice. Aloné, her family tries to tell her, is going to waste her life. This is not advice. It is, in their eyes, a certainty.
She later meets with a woman whose voice, though softer, is just as wise and equally certain — this is the next shattering moment. “This system breaks you apart,” the woman tells Aloné. “It is designed, just like slavery, to tear you apart. And instead of using a whip, they use time. They use hardships.” It’s like, she says, “when they used to hang people, but barely hang them, and leave their feet just tip-toeing in the mud. So that they’re constantly on their tip toes, fighting for their lives.”
This woman, a preacher and poet in spirit, if not by trade, is Sibil Fox Richardson, who goes by Fox Rich. It’s Rich’s story that Bradley tells in Time — though “tells” already vastly oversimplifies what Bradley and Rich, together, have accomplished in this remarkable movie. Both Alone and this new documentary are urgent, lacerating films about black families grappling with the incarceration of loved ones. Both are, more specifically, about the lives of black women, either married to or on the cusp of marrying men who are not free. Women whose sense of their lives, as narrated to us in each film, is that they, too, are not free, and that they will not be so long as the men they love remain incarcerated.
Time would not exist but for a surprising gesture. Bradley had already finished shooting what was to become a short film on Rich when, on the last day of shooting, Rich stopped Bradley to give the filmmaker a box of tapes. Video diaries, more specifically, spanning 18 years and recorded by Rich and occasionally her children on a mini-DV camera. These videos largely record the mundane: the everyday bits of life, especially with growing children, that are most easily taken for granted until they are lost to us. They are letters to Rich’s husband, Robert Richardson. For their nearly two-decade span, Robert is away serving a 60-year prison sentence without parole, for an armed robbery the pair committed (with a nephew) when they were young, newly married, and desperate for money. Rich had been sentenced to 13 years for the crime; she served three and a half. What followed that ordeal — and what Rich’s video diaries painstakingly document — is the life she lived thereon, without her husband, as a single mother caring for the couple’s six children, two of whom were young twins. This is what goes unsaid in Fox’s brief scene in Alone: It’s the history you hear in her voice when she says, “This system breaks you apart.”
With Time, Garrett Bradley has taken a well-chosen and gorgeously organized sample of Rich’s video diaries and wedded them to recent footage, this time filmed by Bradley and a trio of cinematographers. These scenes, which are somehow equally personal, documents Rich’s still-ongoing fight to get her husband parole. He has, by this time, served nearly 18 years. Rich’s goal is to get him home before the 18th birthday of the twins.
There was a linear throughway available to Bradley here, one that would have told this story in straight chronology, moving from the self-recorded snapshots of Rich and her children enduring the span of Robert’s time in prison to the near-present, when Robert is still in prison and Rich, now a gainfully employed prison abolitionist, is still fighting for his life. Their life. That version of Time would likely be satisfying, too, and perhaps provide more in the way of straight information about, among other things, the case.
But this isn’t a true crime documentary. Against the grain of that genre, it redirects our attention from the crime of this couple to the crime of the system. In the first place, there’s an argument to be made — in fact, by giving ample space to Rich’s own confrontation with the question of forgiveness over the years, Time convincingly makes it — for asking fewer questions about what people did to “deserve” imprisonment and more questions about prison’s impact, not only on the people inside, but on the people waiting for them to come home. For this family and many others, incarceration is the absence of a father, a husband. It’s an absence that structures the rest of the family’s life.
Bradley opts to make us feel that absence — to witness it, reckon with it, be shocked by it. She does this by finding a non-linear order for telling this story, one that still has a broad narrative arc (the fight for Robert’s parole) but which encourages us to abandon ourselves to the flow of Rich’s ideas and emotions. There is no everyday life that is unaffected by her husband’s absence. But he’s always on her mind, even when she cannot see or hear him. Even when we don’t see him in Bradley’s film, he’s on ours.
Time incites questions and associations and feelings, all hallmarks of thoughtful editing, though rarely is the effect so generative as it is here. The mini-DV transfers of Rich’s diaries are so pointedly clean and sharp that her movie’s own black and white images flow close enough to seamlessly to be even more uncanny than if they’d been all of a piece. She allows things to shock us: the image of the Richardson children as children in one instance, then the sight (and sound) of them as college students the next. How can this, in itself, prove to be so moving?
What distinguishes this documentary from other movies about mass incarceration is the novelty with which Bradley subverts the mass and trains our eye, frequently literally, on the particular. Films about imprisonment often feature the family, if only because the family is usually easier to access than the people behind bars. But talking to those wives and sons and daughters is one thing. Bradley has not only Rich’s footage to her advantage, but her own incredible perceptiveness to guide her, and a real intelligence for how to let a face tell the story of an entire scene. In this, she’s guided by Rich herself — who is, among other things, an incredible camera presence. (A cut, early on, from Rich in one of her video diaries to her shooting a local commercial proves this point so well, it’s almost jarring.) It feels as if Bradley has gone out of her way to pick up visual cues from her subject’s own video footage — to converse with those diaries, rather than simply complement or contextualize them. Rich’s footage was for her husband. It shows she wanted him to see what he’s missed all these years, from a world outside of a cell to his children’s faces. Intimate details, in other words: lives in loving close-up.
This is what Bradley matches in her own attentive, careful filmmaking, zeroing in on the family as if she, too, wants to give Robert something to see: his wife. Bradley’s footage — down to the fact that it, like Rich’s, is in black and white, and is limited to the same aspect ratio — somehow avoids the problem of feeling like an intervening gaze from an outsider. But being an outsider has its benefits too, because it affords Bradley her own ideas. The mere organization of this movie, the associations Bradley finds between past and present, “video diary” versus “documentary,” are a case in point; it’s the stitching that gives away the dividing line between these merged projects. But so is the way the filmmaker trains her attention on Rich in moments both grand and mundane.
There’s a stirring sequence here, for example, that collects a series of speeches Rich has given over the years about her experience with the prison system; you’re right to feel, here, as if the movie is rooting for her to win. But the ideas are in the editing, too. The movie makes a point of including the moment that Rich announces the date in each of her diaries, which confer less a sense of time passing than of, more interestingly, her commitment to marking time. She is counting the days. We even see her describe her life this way: that year-long cycle of legal appointments, deadlines, and holidays that structure her fight for Robert’s parole. Which is to say, her life.
Obviously, the film’s name is not arbitrary. But part of the power of Time is in the range of meanings it manages to generate, in an attentive viewer’s mind, over the course of its runtime. The title verges on ironic. Time, by definition, is progress: It hurtles only forward, with no off-ramps or exits, no alternatives, no take-backs. It is only appropriate for Bradley to treat this definition like a rule worth breaking. Because time’s role in our lives is, ultimately, something like a seventh sense. It is that fundamental to our perspective of the shape and span of our lives, so much so that we can’t help but claim, in our language, that it’s ours. We say it can be given, stolen, borrowed, managed, wasted. Bradley’s portrait is a blistering and compassionate reminder that for the incarcerated and their loved ones, time is not something you have, but something you do. It isn’t progress. It’s punishment. To “do time” is to lose it.
It’s essential, then, that Bradley’s documentary attends so carefully to our sensations as we watch, swelling and swerving its way through this family’s long haul of an emotional ordeal. It’s vital, and also sort of impossible, that the movie climaxes and closes on the most startlingly intimate of notes. I’ll leave the raw details to the movie to reveal. But you can’t miss it. There’s a brief moment, in a car — the suggestion of an incident — which, among other things, reveals the level of trust and compassion flowing between the director and the Richardson family, and gets to the root of what it means to let an artist into one’s life, to say nothing of how it feels to see a life restored.
Bradley’s own sleight of hand comes soon after, and it is all the more extraordinary for being so simple. She finds a way to recast what came before, building toward a final image that is deeply, knowingly bittersweet. Time, Bradley asks us to remember, is what we lose. Only in a movie can we entertain and engineer the fantasy of getting it back, rewinding the clock, restoring presence to a loved one’s absence. Thank God, then, for movies. This one especially.