The American prison system, its impact on black communities, and its continuity with historic slavery, has come under intense scrutiny in recent years, thanks to works such as Ava DuVernay’s 13th, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Slavery By Another Name by Douglas Blackmon and Eugene Jarecki is the house I live in. Time, directed by Garrett Bradley, is something different. Rather than giving us the big picture, it gives us a personal and emotional experience, and it shows how incarceration, like slavery, permeates all aspects of life, for those who are on the outside like. for those who are behind bars. Intimate and moving, it is the work of an experimental artist more than a journalist – and has been recognized as such by juries since its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won Bradley the documentary film award.
The title is double edged. As much as time is a question of “making time”, it is as much about time itself: time passing, time lost, time remaining. What really allows Time to explore these themes are the 18 years of home videos Rich shot while her husband was in prison, which Bradley skillfully incorporates into his own footage. We see Rich’s twin sons go from a bump in the stomach to college students. We see birthdays, playtime, and family reunions – things their dad missed.
“They have absolutely no idea what it means to have a dad in the house,” Rich says to the camera. And we see Rich herself go from a regretful but enthusiastic young woman to a resilient and complex older one – even though the vulnerabilities are still close to the surface. In one memorable scene, she stands in front of her congregation and asks forgiveness from all those she has made to suffer. This is just one of the many scenes that the collective notions of crime and incarceration lack.
“I don’t go out looking for stories; I meet people. I develop relationships with them and that’s how the projects come to fruition, ”explains Bradley, who currently lives in his native California, but has lived in Louisiana for 10 years. She doesn’t think her approach is better than factual documentary. The two can work in tandem to highlight issues that need to be addressed. Besides, she adds, “don’t you think that emotions are facts? Facts don’t always get emotional, but I think in our body and mind, the things we feel become the truth.
If she had taken a different approach, the movie would never have happened. Bradley met Rich through his 2014 feature debut, Below Dreams, a semi-documentary story about New Orleans millennials, which aired via Craigslist. When one of his players was arrested, Bradley became close to his girlfriend, named Aloné. In 2017, she made a short documentary about Aloné, who was now engaged to her imprisoned boyfriend. This brought her to Rich, who was effectively 18 years down the same path. “She was maintaining her level of hope, but I think she was starting to feel a little broken,” Bradley says. “His patience has been tested to an unprecedented level.”
Bradley then started making another short documentary about Rich, she explains. On the last night of filming, as she was packing her bags, Rich said, “Wait a second. Bradley remembers, “And she went into the other room and came back with that little black gym bag full of mini-DV tapes, and she said, ‘I haven’t watched this thing since I got it. ‘ve shot and I hope this is useful to you. ”
It was an emotional moment, says Bradley. Not necessarily in the context of his film (even if it allowed him to become a feature film), but in the trust that Rich placed in him, to save his memories. In this sense, Time is more of a collaboration between the two women than an orthodox documentary. That’s how she works, says Bradley. “I’m not putting out a job that the people who work there haven’t seen before the rest of the world has seen it. I think it’s extremely important to get their blessing on something and it doesn’t question the idea of authenticity at all. Having something truly collaborative doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s authentic, real, or even objective. ”
This level of confidence is evident over time (spoiler warning). Not least in the cathartic scene when Robert is finally released from prison, having seen his sentence commuted. Fox meets him in a white limousine. They lock themselves in a passionate embrace on the back. Next thing you know, they have no clothes on and look at each other with post-coital bliss. It’s handled tastefully, but you’re struck by the fact that whatever happens is happening in front of a cameraman filming from the front seat.
It was Bradley’s cinematographer Nisa East, she explains. “I was driving my little Honda Civic right behind their car, driving and texting, and Nisa was like, ‘It’s really hot and muggy in here. Do you really want me to keep filming? And I said, “It’s not mine, it’s Fox and Robert.” Let them guide you. A big part of being a filmmaker is energetic work. But what was deepest about this scene was that people came to me and told me that it was only then that they realized how good what had been. lost.
There is another sense in which Bradley felt responsible when Rich handed over his home videos: “In Louisiana in particular, where Katrina has erased a lot of family history, a lot of people no longer have their past documented. And it fuels ideas about the importance of black archives in America. Often times, this is one of the only sources of proof of who we are outside of an outside gaze. It’s a form of resistance to have your own archives. “
Bradley’s work often crosses the lines between fiction, documentary and archives. His 2017 film America, for example, sought to piece together this lost archive of footage of early 20th-century African-American life, with filmed scenes of non-actors interspersed with silent 1913 clips from The Lime Kiln Club Field. Day – the oldest feature film with an all-black cast.
She has also worked in the making of commercial films. She met Ava DuVernay on the set of her Louisiana set Queen Sugar, and then worked as an assistant director on DuVernay’s Central Park Five series When They See Us. “Like Fox, and like all great leaders, she has a way of leading while being generous and opening doors for people. She has a solo show at the MoMA New York opening in November and has been working on a documentary about tennis star Naomi Osaka for a year. The future looks bright.
Things have improved for the Rich / Richardson family as well. Unlike many ex-convicts, Robert had a stable home to return to. He and Fox are now campaigning together for families affected by incarceration and for prison reform. However, technically he is still not free: he will be on parole and under curfew for the next 40 years, Bradley points out. “So again, as Fox said herself, you commit a crime in the state of Louisiana as a black family and they have you for life.
What would she say to those who refuse to sympathize with Richardson? He is, after all, a criminal, and for many Americans the mantra is still: you do the crime, you make the time. “I think it comes down to forgiveness,” Bradley says. “What do we as a society gain from excessive penalties?” Sentencing is just the tip of the iceberg in an unfair system. “It’s not really a question of crimes, but a lot of other things that we have to resolve as a culture if we are to live in a just and equitable society, and I think most of us do.
There are reasons for hope, she believes. One is the fact that racial injustice and the American prison industrial complex are now common topics. “We talk about it in the media the same way Batman talks about it, right? Attitudes are changing: John Bel Edwards, governor of Louisiana since 2016, campaigned for prison reform and granted 116 of the 164 clemency petitions he received; his predecessor, Bobby Jindal, has pardoned only 83 of 738s in the previous eight years.
Another more enduring reason is the weather itself. The progress made over the generations is visible over time. Fox Rich’s mother told her to dress well and try to make a good impression in court, and discouraged her from fighting for Robert’s release. Fox herself chose to take the system. Today, Freedom, one of her twins, is a political science student studying the criminal justice system to help transform it. “I am incredibly optimistic,” says Bradley. “I think we have to be. The system wins when we stop being optimistic. ”
• The Time is on view at the London Film Festival on October 15th.