Doing ‘Time’

A Louisiana family faces the injustices of the prison system in this spare, lyrical documentary

Quiet fortitude suffuses Time, a lyrical howl of a documentary that examines how America’s incarceration system affects an inmate’s immediate family. Broke and desperate, Sibil Fox Richardson and her husband Robert robbed a Louisiana bank in the mid-’90s. She took the plea deal and served 12 years. He refused, and in 1997 got 60 years in prison with no parole. Sure, time is a construct. But time is also a sentence. In director Garrett Bradley’s hands, time is also a monument to pain and persistence. People are doing time, whether they’re in prison or not.


TIME ★★★★★(5/5 stars)
Directed by: Garrett Bradley
Running time: 81 min


Sibil met Robert when she was 16, and the high school sweethearts had dreams of starting their own business, a hip-hop clothing store. “I come from a people with a strong desire to make something of ourselves,” she says. And with Robert locked up, she presses ahead, eventually running her own car dealership in New Orleans. She also raised their six sons, including recent school of dentistry grad Remington. Her twins: Freedom and Justus. “Boys grow up to have moustaches and beards, she says. The crowded family photos are always missing a father.

Sibil’s chronic agony, rippling but never crippling, fuels a determination to fight the justice system and try to get her man free. Over the years, she channels her sorrow into a righteous indignation that expresses itself in fruitless call after fruitless call to judges and penitentiaries. “Thank you,” she says before hanging up. She needs to get Robert out. “Do the time, do the crime,” Sibil acknowledges. But she’s fixated on another phrase: “cruel and unusual punishment.”

At one point she loses her cool, repeating her frustration in a cascade of words that suddenly turn into a harsh yell.  Then she catches herself. “Bless me, Lord,” she says through gritted teeth.

This is a story of dignity above all else. How much suffering is enough? The concept of self-worth suffuses the film: Sibil’s, her children’s, her husband’s. Bradley tells Sibil’s tale through two decades of intimate, poignant family videos, intercut with handsome, recently-shot HD footage and all rendered in velvety black and white cinematography. Contemplative, piano-driven music accents the understated emotions. It’s southern charm mixed with stoic resolve.

We don’t even hear Robert’s voice until an hour into the film, during a phone conversation. And later, when Remington has a change to talk to him, he has one word of advice: “I just want you to love that woman,” he says about his mom.

Unlike flashier documentaries slathered with overheated music, jittery quick-cuts and droning sound effects, Time is elegant and minimalist. Very little narrative emerges; the film is a string of meditative moments, snapshots of lives lived with a chronic, nagging absence. It requires focus and attention. But it rewards it, too. It’s a slender, nimble assembly, sobering and devastating.

 

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. He is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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