Most critiques of the criminal justice system focus on how it lets down the innocent. This documentary, Time, focuses instead on how it mistreat the guilty, and is a stronger critique because of this. In a way, this is similar to Kieslowski’s masterpiece (one of his many) A Short Film About Killing, where showing how the guilty are wronged reflects so much more harshly on the system, putting the focus on the process rather than the person.
This comparison is merely stylistically though, as the imprisoned figure in Time is a sympathetic figure – it is just that he is guilty of the crime he has been imprisoned of. This is not a film about showing his innocence, even in some wider way, it is a film about exposing the inherent issues at the heart of the prison system; in fact, it is a film about the need for prison abolitionism. However, it is not a polemic, it is a poetic and, dare I say philosophical, meditation on the concept of time and how it affects us. This is of course central to the film’s critique, how prison takes time from people and what ‘spending time’ means – that time is a resource. At its heart, this film is a collage of time that the filmmaker, Garrett Bradley, has weaved together through twenty years of footage (archive and specially filmed) to capture the twenty years Rob Rich has spent in prison.
Rob and his wife, Fox Rich, were imprisoned for bank robbery – Fox as an accomplice. Fox served a small prison sentence and Rob was given a ludicrously extended sentence that overwhelmed his crime. This film gives no real context around the crime committed, because this is not important. This is a film about the justice system and it shows how it does not create or enforce justice. We primarily focus on Fox, now a motivational speaker on the subject of prison abolitionism – and an ardent campaigner. Interestingly, we see how life outside of prison has made her grow and has imbued her with purpose. Her progression as a person, and the undeniable aid she has brought to others, are not due to being incarcerated and therefore rehabilitated. Time shows rehabilitation as antithetical to the prison system, and showcases the actual motivations behind this system.
Through the film, we see the great achievements Fox and her family have made, while still fighting to try and free her husband. Her husband’s imprisonment is clearly redundant, a purely bureaucratic decision that exists because of an inflexible system. He is not aided by it; society is not aided by it. The sentence exists because it exists and helps nobody. What is fascinating is how the Rich family have defied expectations and have flourished, but also how they have had to work harder than anybody else to achieve this. We learn through the film (or are reminded) that those who grow up with an incarcerated father (Fox was pregnant with twins at the time of her sentencing) usually do not graduate from school and are overtly limited. The film does not need to explicitly comment on the wider impacts of this, it just shows that those who had nothing to do with the crime being supposedly punished are affected by the punishment rather than the crime itself. The harm being done here is from incarceration. We also see how the successes of the Rich family are intrinsically linked to prison abolitionism and reform – that their lives are defined. We are only left to wonder what they could have instead achieved if their time had not been stolen, or their paths through time had not been curated for them by an external force.
All of these ideas exist organically in the narrative, why this film is so impressive is because of the filmmaking. The most overt artistic choice is to have this documentary be in black and white. What this does is make things feel stuck in the past, feel backwards and cold. These complex issues, problems and circumstances are thrown against a black and white system, and this is shown visually. It is not the most subtle point but it is incredibly effective. The editing also adds to this, time seems fluid with things out of order and no clear linear progression. This links back to the philosophical meditation; the point is that serving time has robbed time from the family. They have lost a comfortable linearity and now exist in a purgatorial stasis where the same event keeps happening. We return to the motif of a promised release time and time again but know that the film exists over the space of twenty-years. Time, the concept, starts to lose its meaning. The flow of images, as sequences dance together and contextualise each other in delicate ways, is also deeply poetic. This is a loving tribute and a phenomenal evocation of life and family.
Another important part of the filmmaking equation is the music. The muted feel evoked by the cold, monochrome visuals is enhanced by a plaintive piano score. At points it deviates from this, but only into melancholy soundscapes or carefully matched ambience. The music is so beautiful and so achingly sad, giving an inherently tragic quality that emphasises the struggle. There is a repetitive nature to the score though, even at its most elegant, and that underscores the repetitions inherent to the narrative. Simply put, though, the music is just beautiful and adds a poetic dimension to the stories and lives on screen, an artistic representation of people who – for so many depressing, and deeply unfair reason – are so rarely given this treatment.
One could argue that Time is too singular, too focused. It does not give a wide condemnation of the prison system and is inherently linked to a single story. However, this is because this film is not a polemic;it is not an essay: this is a reflection on time lost and time spent, and this film legitimately brings something to a situation. It is not just a spotlight, it evidences the time and the process while bringing up wider questions and issues. It evokes more than it informs and because it is so confident, so self-assured and so focused, it is hard to argue against – not that you would want to. The single story here evokes the wider point, in a beautifully implicit way that leverages the capabilities of documentary filmmaking. This is not the documentary that will end the prison system; this is a philosophical insight into an important story that needs to be told. This is the beginning of something, as well as a recognition of loss. And when the film pulls one final trick at the end, audiences will not be able to deny that time has been stolen not served – and by pushing this idea through the human and the relatable, hearts will be moved and minds will be changed.