In collaboration with the Cambridge Film Festival, this week's film club looks at Time, Garrett Bradley's powerful and poetic documentary about Sibil Fox Richardson's courageous fight for the release of her incarcerated husband. Below that, The Masses & Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris, two more incisive, prejudice-tackling documentaries.
'Time is running and passing, passing and running'
The systemic flaws of the American judicial system are encapsulated in the phone call Sibil Fox Richardson takes from her incarcerated husband. After clearing the collect call charge hurdles, Fox is subjected to three or four more recorded messages, each one increasingly robotic in tone. It starts to feel like one of those American podcasts where you have to wade through 20 minutes of advertisements before you’re let in. Finally, she gets through to her husband, Robert, and they chat about ‘normal’ things — the manicure/pedicure she’s just had, how she wants her family reunited, the first thing he’ll do when he gets out (Disney World). And suddenly, rapid beeping: ‘Thank you for using Securus. Goodbye.’ The call is cut off.
It’s a callous moment, and it is indicative of the gross undervaluing of human time by this system. This is the failure that Time confronts head on, a film that proves the value of persistence and belief in the face of injustice. Far from the Bonnie and Clyde romance that Fox and Rob’s crime might conjure, their failed bank robbery was a knee-jerk response to an investor pulling out just before the grand opening of their shared business venture, a hip hop clothes store. That Fox — a gifted and charismatic speaker — would be driven to such extremes is evidence of yet another profound systemic flaw. Desperate people do desperate things. In 1997, Fox began serving three and a half years in prison — during which she would give birth to their twin sons — and Rob was sentenced to 60. No probation, no parole, no suspension.
In comparing the alarming, racially-biased mass incarceration of African Americans to a brand of modern-day slavery, there are obvious parallels with The 13th, Ava DuVernay’s cutting takedown of the injustice and exploitation of America’s prison system. But, to both films' merit, where The 13th verges on legal text, Time is poetry, thanks to its lovingly crafted form. After wrapping what was originally conceived as a short film, director Garrett Bradley was given 100 hours of raw footage by Fox that documented the painful wait for her husband's release. The enormous task of covering these 21 long years is made an asset, however, as we fluidly drift from present day to old DVD footage, back and forth in time with no motion sickness.
As Fox puts it, ‘time is when you look at pictures from when your babies were small, and then you look at them and you see that they have moustaches and beards.’ The film knows this, and interspersing old camcorder footage of birthday parties with images of their fully-grown adult children is a powerful reminder of the volatility of time. One jump cut near the end between young and old Fox floors you. All credit to Boyhood, but it’s reassuring that this scope remains accessible to someone without the budget of Richard Linklater.
Intelligent aesthetic decisions have been made. In contemporary films, black and white is often flicked on and off without a great deal of thought as to why (I see you Malcolm & Marie). Here, it is a way of unionising the old tapes with the present day footage, and is vital in demonstrating the severe paralysis at stake. Accompanying all of this is Ethiopian piano maestro and nun Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, whom fans of the Ethiopiques records will be familiar with. To describe her sound through western peers, it’s a bit Chopin, a bit Thelonious, or Bo Harwood on A Woman Under the Influence. Those, but floating half a yard above your head. It’s expertly chosen music that ronseals the transitions, and binds the film's temporal medley.
All of these choices amount to a lesson in documentary filmmaking. Time tells such a moving story, that it could easily be bland talking-heads and intertitles and remain valuable. But every aspect of its form is employed creatively to augment and elevate the crucial purpose at the heart of the film. On the Richardsons’ case, there’s a stomach-churning statement by a white lawyer that recalls Steve McQueen’s Mangrove — ‘They very much resent that you all are coming from a place of power and assertion of your rights, as opposed to soliciting a favour’. It’s a vile idea, that change should just manifest itself from passivity, and then one should be grateful for it. There’s too much of that about, and we should change it.
This Friday, the Cambridge Film Festival presents a special pay-what-you-can-afford screening of Time, as part of their ‘A Film I Love…’ feature. Observer film critic and culture writer Simran Hans will be in discussion with Cambridge Film Festival trustee Jenny Nelson about her reasons for choosing Time as a film she loves. After purchase, the film and conversation will be available to stream for 48 hours. For full details visit the Cambridge Film Festival website.
4:3 | Boilerroom
The Masses (Allen-Pickard, 2019)
Over the last few months, as they often are, Millwall FC have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The Bermondsey-based club are well known for solid, Championship football, admirable community work, and vicious hooliganism. Regrettably, like a few other EFL teams, they found headlines in December when a loud portion of their fans booed the anti-racist kneel vs. Derby County. But don’t worry, it wasn’t out of contempt for their own multicultural squad's peaceful demonstration, it was a protest against Marxism. After a predictably depressing week for football’s Sisyphean fight against racism, The Masses comes as a tonic — Dorothy Allen-Pickard’s calming exploration of South London’s diverse community.
The short documentary cuts between our three narrators: a Muslim, a black Christian man, and a white Millwall fan — South London neighbours, all with different songs. Though their cultural differences are many and considerable, they are all united in their devotion to a church of sorts. Moreover, they are all victims of short-sighted discrimination, when the actions of rotten individuals lead to wholesale prejudice towards entire groups. Our Millwall narrator reflects on the damage caused by a few individuals singing a chant that ‘takes you back to the dark days of the seventies’, dark days that we are revisiting with disturbing frequency.
We find out that there are at least seventy different countries represented by worshippers at the mosque we visit. You can’t stereotype seventy countries at the same time. An obvious point, but it is important to remind yourself of the variance in coverage that you would see if you plotted that on a map. Director Allen-Pickard lets the narration run over into contrasting images of their neighbours' communities, and juxtaposes packed religious services with the spiritual euphoria of the football ground — it is wholesome and uplifting. Placing these things side by side emphasises the common humanity of the three men, which is vital when the present world is such a multicultural tapestry.
The Masses is free to stream on Dorothy Allen-Pickard's website.
Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris (Dixon, 1970)
It’s always a cause for celebration when rare material related to an artistic genius surfaces. Or, rather, given the multitude of reasons that can influence the prior concealment of these artefacts, it is always fascinating. As is the case with Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris, a 1970 short-documentary that has been treated to a gloriously vibrant new 2K restoration. As well as offering a beautiful, mid-career window into the mind of Baldwin, one of the great artists of the 20th century, it also proves that a charismatic speaker can salvage worth from even the most ill-conceived interview.
The title gives most of the required context here (no relation to Emily in Paris). Baldwin has carefully chosen the settings we meet him: the Place de la Bastille, the studio of artist Beauford Delaney, the bars in the Algerian Quarter. But, as the narration is quick to point out, the writer’s ‘attitude’ changed after shooting began, and he became less cooperative. The word ‘attitude’ is said with a saltiness that brings tabloid-vernacular to mind; clearly Baldwin didn’t think much of his hosts.
One struggles to see what entitled British documentarian Terence Dixon hoped to achieve with this project, who does his best to spoil the party with his persistent encroachment. You start to wonder if Chris Morris met him before he began work on The Day Today. It seems that Dixon and cameraman Jack Hazan skipped across the channel, fully expecting to get a few jolly soundbites from the peerless novelist/essayist/activist/playwright and march back home. I can hear it now: ‘If we could just get some nice B-roll of you sauntering down the bank of the Seine, Jimmy, that would just be très bien.' At one point Dixon asks why Baldwin takes a long time between novels — Baldwin reminds him that he has been working through the assassinations of his close friends. It’s very jarring.
Fortunately this does nothing to quash the film's watchability. Baldwin is such a deeply intelligent thinker that all material of him is invaluable, and there’s satisfaction to be had in his prudent takedowns, even before he starts to play ball towards the end. We are blessed that ignorance just becomes ammunition for someone like Baldwin, making for a thoroughly worthwhile depiction of the artist’s evergreen wisdom.