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A Conversation With The Director Of Oscar-Nominated Documentary 'Time'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

How many times have you heard this? If you can't do the time, then don't do the crime. Let's say you did do the crime. But what if the time meant what remains of your adult life for a first offense in which no one was hurt? And it meant your children grow up without a father, your wife without a husband, and your community without another man who likely could, given a chance, resume his place as a contributing member. That is the provocative question at the heart of a powerful documentary called "Time."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TIME")

SIBIL FOX RICHARDSON: You raise a family for 20 years behind bars. You keep a family together for two decades in this institution. You hold onto your loved ones and your sanity in the midst of this cruel and unusual punishment. Then you can talk to me. Then you can tell me if I do the crime, I should do the time.

MARTIN: That is the voice of Fox Rich, the woman at the center of "Time." She spent most of the last 20 years campaigning for the release of her husband, Rob, who was sentenced to a 60-year term at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La., for a robbery they both committed in the early 1990s. Director Garret Bradley combines video diaries that Fox recorded for her husband in the 1990s with intimate glimpses of her and the family's life now.

Bradley won the U.S. documentary directing award for "Time" at last year's Sundance Film Festival, becoming the first Black woman to do so. And earlier this month, the film was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary Feature category. And Garret Bradley is with us now to tell us more about "Time."

Garrett Bradley, thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations.

GARRETT BRADLEY: Oh, Michel, thank you so much. It's such a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: So, as briefly as you can - because the film is remarkable for the story as well as for how you tell the story - I mean, as briefly as you can, would you tell us how you met this family?

BRADLEY: Yeah. I met Fox first, actually, in the process of making a short film called "Alone," which was with The New York Times Op-Docs. And I had really thought about that as being a film that was truly a facilitation of conversations that were happening between women that were in incarcerated families and really it being a source of support, both for each other and anyone who watched the film.

And when "Alone" came out, it felt to me like I had, like, a real calling, frankly. I was able to see that there was a real absence in stories and films that were really speaking to incarceration from a point of view of the family. And that was really looking at the effects of incarceration, the effects of the facts.

And Fox and I had developed a relationship. I got to know the family. I got to know Robert even though he was at Angola. And it felt like a really natural thing for us to sort of do together and to continue this conversation from that perspective.

MARTIN: I don't want to just focus on the craft of the film itself, but I have to say, it's remarkable. And something that was particularly striking in the film was the amount of footage that came from Fox herself, from the tapes that she made. I'll just have to say, you know, one reason it's remarkable is that the loss of a past is something that many African Americans deal with in general - you know, the fact that they don't have access to, you know, their histories.

But it's also that this is Louisiana. This is New Orleans. A lot of people lost all their family pictures...

BRADLEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...And, you know, all of their recorded past. And I just wondered, you know, when you saw those tapes, did you just - what went through your mind?

BRADLEY: Yeah. I mean, I - so much goes through one's mind in a situation like that because, you know, first of all, I had no awareness that Fox had this archive while I was making the film. I was pretty dead set on thinking I was making another 13-minute short film with the family. And it wasn't until the last day of filming that Fox handed me what ended up being a hundred hours of her own personal archive.

And I think on some level, there is - it's a profound and sort of almost a political act to have - the Black family archive represents for us in many cases how we see ourselves. It is sometimes the only instances of how we see ourselves if mainstream society and culture don't always represent those things in the same way. And so it's an act of resistance, on one hand. I think for Fox, it was also very much a type of therapy, right?

And it was also - you know, something that really stood out to me was this idea of her having a real lack of doubt. She knew she was going to manifest the reunion of her family, the unification of her family, and that there was no doubt that he would be there to see those things. And I think that's incredible.

MARTIN: So I want to play a clip for you from a scene that I thought was really powerful. It's from one of Fox's tapes that she filmed herself in the 1990s. And she's at church, and she's asking for forgiveness. And I want to play that, and then we'll talk a little bit more. Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "TIME")

FOX RICHARDSON: I need to ask for forgiveness from my children, and I need to ask for forgiveness for my past. And I need to ask for forgiveness from my church and in...

(CROSSTALK)

FOX RICHARDSON: ...Because all of you know grace. So to all of you, I ask, please forgive me.

(APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: I mean, you can hear the emotion in her voice. But one of the reasons that this stood out for me because so many of the films that we see about the prison system involve people who are either - who are innocent, who were wrongly convicted. But both Rob and Fox were guilty of their crimes. They did, in fact, commit the acts for which they were convicted. And yet they are inviting us to consider something else. And what is that that they and you are inviting us to consider?

BRADLEY: So the question of why do we want to make this film, I think, is the answer to your question. And I posed that question to them in the very beginning. Why is it important that we do this together? And both Robert and Fox said, our story is the story of 2.3 million American families. And we feel that our story can offer hope. And I think that my job as a filmmaker then was to distill and understand, well, what does hope look like in cinematic terms, in actionable terms? How does that inform their daily life?

And I think it really ended up looking like three things. It was unification. You know, it was their ability to stay together as such a strong family over the course of 21 years, which even some families, you know, where there - incarceration is not a factor, that could be difficult, right? It was individuality - the fact that each one of the family members is an individual. They are not shrouded by or defined by the system. And it was love - you know? - love, which surpasses all time and all space, which is not linear, which is not tied to any kind of chronology.

And I think it is that. You know, it is all three of those things that we are wanting to share with the world. It's a type of celebration. Again, it is something that - and it's not just the 2.3 million people that are actually incarcerated. It's, if not double, triple, quadruple that number of those that are serving time on the outside. And so these are daily forms of resistance that are in action every single day.

MARTIN: Garrett, before we let you go, this is a question I probably should have asked you sooner, but why did they rob that credit union or try to rob that credit union?

BRADLEY: I mean, there's so many different answers to why one makes a mistake, you know? They were young. They tried the right way. You know, they went to family members. They tried to get a loan. They were - they needed money, you know? But I think that Fox herself and Robert, you know, have said, we made a mistake, you know? We made - we got desperate, you know?

And as Fox says, desperate people do desperate things. You have a moment of insanity. And I think that if we want to live in a better world, we have to think about forgiveness as a really key part of growing and evolving - you know, that we can't be a static society.

MARTIN: That's Garrett Bradley. She is the director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary "Time," which you can stream on Amazon Prime now.

Garrett Bradley, thank you so much for being with us. Congratulations.

BRADLEY: Thank you so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.