Sibil Richardson doesn’t dispute the fact that she and her husband, Rob Richardson, committed a crime. She lays it out plainly. The two of them were facing a dire situation with their small business, and their place of desperation led to the bad decision to attempt a bank robbery. Sibil was given a relatively light sentence, but Rob was hit with what was effectively the promise of the rest of his life behind bars. At the time the judge’s gavel fell, he was given no hope of early release. Sibil and Rob already had a family full of children, all of them now facing the prospect of growing up with a father. Garrett Bradley’s new documentary, Time, tells their story.
The film is mostly from the perspective of Sibil, who relentlessly works against a dismissive, unkind, and costly legal system to get some amount of relief for Rob, arguing that the sentence was disproportionate to the offense. In scene after scene, Sibil is determined and patient, holding tight to the possibility of a better outcome tomorrow despite hard experience that has taught her hope is like a mass of oiled-up ball bearings. She has become an advocate, speaking to church groups and college classes about the prison industrial complex and the deeply embedded racism that exacts harsh punishment against black men while letting perpetual criminals within the halls of power continue riding the endless escalatory of upward mobility.
In images of softened black and white, Bradley depicts the experience without the commonplace documentary adornments of narration and other broadly explanatory elements. It is a sort of direct cinema approach, though enriched by a dreamlike quality. Sibil herself filmed relentlessly over the years, creating a document or the family Rob didn’t get to see grow and change. Bradley melds that footage with her own, giving the sense of memory intruding, as if Sibil’s attempts to bring Rob back to her stir the bygone past: all the time apart, all the time lost. The approach has an incredible power, coming as close as possible to not only depicting the feelings of sadness, but transferring directly into the viewer. It is all too easy, or so it seems to be, to feel what Sibil feels when watching Time.
Although the lack of overt commentary can lull some into believing intense neutrality is the goal of the film, Bradley is definitely putting forth an argument. With poignancy and truthfulness, Bradley presents the persistent injustice in the justice system. There’s little indication of an institutional hope that Rob will be rehabilitated, that he will learn from his state-imposed punishment and emerge a batter person, a laudable contributor to society. Instead, the expectation is he will rot and those fighting for him will simply give up and move on, worn out by the callousness. When Sibil recounts going to talk to the women who were working in the bank on the day of the robbery, therefore directly confronting the ill effects of the crime, she is willingly engaged in the type of restorative justice that would happen in a society that wasn’t bleakly committed to dehumanizing those who run afoul of the law, no matter the circumstances that led them there. Time is about the loss of precious years by Rob and Sibil and those they love. By the film’s end, the squandering of lives is so intensely shared that it feels like time is being stripped away from everyone in our great shared community. Allowing people to heal and rebuild makes the whole better.