▶︎ Time is available to stream on Amazon Prime from 16 October 2020.

Garrett Bradley (pictured above) met Sibil ‘Fox’ Richardson – a Louisiana-based entrepreneur, activist and mother of six boys – while making her 2017 New York Times Op-Doc Alone. The 12-minute black-and-white short gives us a glimpse into the life of Aloné Watts, a young Black woman in New Orleans, as she prepares to marry her incarcerated partner. Fox – who for nearly two decades had been campaigning for the release of her own husband, Rob, after he was sentenced in 1999 to 60 years in prison for a robbery – appears in the film for just a few moments. “[This system] is designed, just like slavery, to tear you apart,” she tells Watts. “And instead of using the whip, they use Mother Time.”

Inspired by Fox’s eloquence and tenacity, Bradley decided to make another short Op-Doc focused on her and her sons, and spent several months capturing their unrelenting battle with bureaucracy. But on the last day of filming, just as Bradley was packing up, Fox handed the filmmaker a bag of MiniDV tapes: 18 years of home videos documenting all the family moments that her husband had missed.

That’s when Bradley’s latest feature, Time, was born. “When I transcoded the full 100 hours of footage, it became clear that this was the other half of the film,” the director tells me on the phone on a Saturday afternoon in September. “It’s like two films have come together to make a third film.”

Bradley is in a car as we speak, en route to the airport to travel abroad for a secret project. Later in the day, Time opens at a drive-in screening at the 58th New York Film Festival. The pandemic has not slowed the ascendant journey of the film, which began at the Sundance Film Festival in January. There, Bradley became the first Black woman to win the US Documentary Directing Prize. A bidding war ensued, culminating in a $5 million acquisition by Amazon.

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Sibil ‘Fox’ Richardson, 20 years ago and now

The success of Time speaks to the revelatory power of its twinned perspective: its combination of Fox’s video diaries with Bradley’s artfully shot vignettes of the Richardson family’s daily lives. As Fox and her sons persevere through limbo narrating their lives to Rob in the home videos, visiting courts, receiving reverse-charge calls, and going about their jobs in Bradley’s footage – we also see them grow and change. Fox transforms from a young, vulnerable and defiantly optimistic mother to a jaded, polished but still resolute matriarch; her boys emerge as passionate and resilient young men. Blending autobiographical and observational modes, and interweaving the past and the present, the film offers both an epic and an everyday account of incarceration’s thefts – of time; of intimacy.

When Bradley discovered Fox’s archive, her immediate concerns were aesthetic: how to reconcile her own meticulous compositions – involving Dutch angles, slow zooms and precise and sensuous close-ups – with the rougher, more improvised textures of Fox’s videos?

But serendipitous connections soon emerged. “Fox is a visionary in and of her film, and I had my vision. But there are moments in the footage where we’re doing exactly the same thing with the camera,” Bradley says. “Like the camera being in profile to her while she’s sitting at the desk and working. Those are things I could not have anticipated at the formal level. And the fact that we didn’t know either of us existed feels magical.”

Bradley and her co-editor Gabriel Rhodes sought to emphasise the emotional resonances between the different parts of the material. They did this in part by rendering the entire film in black and white and overlaying the images with intimate voiceovers by Fox and her sons and a classical score – composed by an Ethiopian nun named Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, whom Bradley found on YouTube – which with their non-linear editing gives the film a symphonic, timeless quality.

“I wanted it to feel like a river, not a collage,” Bradley says. “Like memory. When we remember something, it’s in the present moment within our own bodies. There’s no physical concept of the past and the future when it’s in our minds. I wanted the film to mimic that feeling.”

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Time (2020)

Stylistically, Time recalls Bradley’s previous film, America (2019), an archival and speculative monochrome meditation on the gaps in the records of Black American cinema. Where America sought to reclaim lost histories, Time endeavours to commit to the screen an obscured, often ungraspable reality: the American prison-industrial complex.

“How do you illustrate the disease that our country has right now with incarceration?” Bradley asks. “The absence of something also leaves a mark. Even when you erase something on a piece of paper, you can see that it has been erased. And the marking of incarceration in this case is seen in the family. How can we remove the 2.3 million people who are incarcerated from abstraction? Well, we have to embrace the effects of it on the folks that are serving time on the outside.”

Time never enters the prison or the courthouse; it takes place almost entirely within the Richardson family’s domestic and professional spheres. But one remarkable shot in the film gives us an aerial view of the expanse of Louisiana State Penitentiary, nicknamed ‘Angola’ for the plantation that previously occupied the territory.

“Even just trying to capture Angola, which is 18,000 acres of land, made up of different plantations, named after a country from which enslaved people came… My drone could not even capture the scale of that prison,” Bradley says. “We see just a fraction of the entire landscape. That, again, reinforces the impossibility of being able to capture the magnitude of this situation.”

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Sibil ‘Fox’ Richardson

Fox is the heart and soul of Time, a magnetic presence and a commanding orator, and Bradley allows us to feel the full force of her will.

“When we were showing early cuts to folks, there was an immediate hesitation around who was in control within the film,” Bradley says. “I thought that was incredible because it brings into question the power dynamics within the history of documentary filmmaking. The idea that giving Fox the space to fully be herself would in some way infringe on my own authority as a filmmaker brings up interesting questions for me, but those were not questions that I myself ever took issue with. I felt like where I am is in the way the thing is captured, in the editing, in the music. But who Fox is and how we understand her life, I wanted that to be coming from her.”

That wariness towards an unapologetically assertive subject – particularly a Black woman – is one that Fox negotiates within the film as well. She’s forthright and even remorseful in Time: her argument isn’t that her family is perfect, but that the system is unjust. And yet, the need for perfection as an armour is evident in her and her sons’ poised, dutiful demeanours.

“The pressure to be ‘respectable’ or ‘exceptional’ is very much a result of this system,” Bradley says. Fox and the entire family understand this, and they are also using it as a form of resistance, using it as a way of holding on to themselves as individuals.”

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Time (2020)

Even as it communicates these complex observations, Time appeals to our most fundamental desires: for love, affection, community – and it makes a more powerful case for the abolition of prisons than any polemical statement might.

Bradley reflects on the film in light of the last few months. “The irony is that so many people feel isolated right now and don’t have access to intimacy,” she says. “2.3 million people are incarcerated, so there are double or triple that number who are isolated, who don’t have access to one another, who don’t have the basic human right to be held, to feel loved, to feel connected. That’s huge and that goes beyond statistics and numbers, beyond why someone is incarcerated.”