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Sha’Carri Richardson says you don’t know half of what she’s been through. Last summer, everybody’s eyes were on her: Richardson was unabashedly confident and issued sensationalist quips during her quick ascent to becoming America’s fastest woman, and then it all came crashing down when she was disqualified from the Olympics for marijuana use, a banned substance. “Whether you like it, whether you dislike it, you’re going to be watching,” she says.
Richardson is absolutely right. We all watched and felt like we knew her—like her personal life was part of our own, as though we’d learned so much about her that she couldn’t possibly have anything private left to hold on to. But in the documentary, Sub Eleven Seconds, which was produced by the late Virgil Abloh and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival yesterday, Richardson insists we still don’t know anything about her. “The more I show you guys, the more behind closed doors I’m going through and I’m dealing with,” she says.
Although she’s withholding, Richardson showed us that she can divulge personal information at a moment’s notice. After winning the 100 meters at this year’s Olympic Trials in a blazing 10.86 seconds, in her interview she revealed for the first time that her biological mother had died the week before. The media narrative became that her performance was even more impressive given what she’d been through. That’s the reality of track and field: You bring all of yourself to the starting line; when you race, you carry your whole life with you.
“The 100 meters is one of the most expressive things an individual can do,” Richardson’s coach, Dennis Mitchell, says in the film. “Everything that she’s been through, everything that’s happened to her in her life, whether it has been good or bad all comes out in that 10-second period.”
Above all else, the film aims to show the sacred nature of that 10.86 seconds of Richardson’s life. The film is a poetic depiction of time’s complexity and contradictions. Time passing is the most overt and consistent visual motif; there isn’t a single moment in the film’s 24 minutes where the viewer doesn’t see or hear time passing—a stopwatch ticking, the scoreboard at Hayward Field counting up, intermittent reminders of the time of day and how many minutes remain until the gun goes off.
“I find time so mysterious,” said Bafic, the director, at a live panel after the film’s debut. “It’s the most believed conceptual thing. It’s hiding in plain sight.” Bafic is not and never was a competitive track athlete, nor is anybody else on the production team. They saw Richardson and her story as a vehicle for achieving their broader goal—something specific in service of the universal.
“I didn’t want it to feel like a normal sports documentary,” Bafic says. “We didn’t try to do a life story.” The film is the marriage of a single interview with Richardson and footage gathered from a single day of her competition. The interview lasted only an hour. Bafic was in Eugene for two days.
The film’s power is derived from the quality of that one interview. “I think a lot of athletes, especially women, aren’t interviewed properly,” Bafic says. “We are in a drought of beautiful dialogue and back and forth conversation.” The film is mostly Richardson’s voice laid over cinema verité footage of Hayward Field the day of her race. The entire film, the entire conversation—which touches on Richardson’s fears, her values, her relationship with her family—all anticipates the race and builds the tension necessary to dramatize that 10.86 seconds.
When the climax of the story actually arrives, when it’s time to actually show the race, its depiction isn’t what’s expected. Bafic takes full artistic liberty in depicting Richardson recounting what happened earlier that day: “The people are in the stands.” We see them. “I’m on the track.” We see her. “The gun is going off.” We see the starter holding the pistol. But then Richardson says her three sentences again: “The people are in the stands. I’m on the track. The gun is going off.” Again. Now faster. Again. Her three sentences morph into a sort of chant that quickly becomes hypnotic, and the shots become choppy, changing quickly and aggressively—to the clock, then to Richardson in the blocks, to the starter, then to the fans—back and forth, back and forth, change, change, change. The music increases in volume and feels more chaotic and stressful with every passing second, and finally the gun goes off and everything slows down.
“It’s literally like I could just stand there and watch everything slowly happen,” Richardson says. The visuals mirror her words. The race footage is slowed to quarter speed, and Richardson begins counting to 10. She’s the slowest woman out of the blocks but with every step she gains ground. By the time she says “six” she’s caught up to the leaders. She’s smooth and pushes forward, mouth closed, eyes ahead, and when she eventually reaches “ten” she’s steps ahead of everybody and is the fastest woman in America.
The final few minutes of the film borrow from the broadcast immediately after Richardson crosses the finish line: She goes crazy—sticks her tongue out, celebrates for herself, runs up the stairs still in her spikes to hug her grandmother. Hayward Field is loud. The fans can’t calm down. The announcers praise Richardson for her groundbreaking performance. And then it cuts to her in the dark studio, hours later, alone, quiet, still. The next few shots are an alternation of the broadcast and the studio, starkly contrasted, reminding the viewer that with movement comes stillness, with noise comes silence, with highs come lows.
One of the film’s glaring omissions is the scandal Richardson found herself tangled in after the race: She was disqualified from the Tokyo Olympics due to a positive drug test, after being hyped as the only woman capable of ending the U.S.’s long gold medal streak in the 100-meters. Bafic says they always intended for the movie to be incredibly focused, just a snapshot. “We wanted to make something that is a time capsule and is a portrait of her at this specific moment,” he says.
Many of Richardson’s words feel applicable to her full story, though, including some of her final words of the film: “I fear not being able to do what it is that I have been blessed to do, what I have been designed to do.”
It’s clear that what Richardson was designed to do is run 10 fast seconds—10 seconds that, in the film, feels like a lifetime. And a lifetime, she says, was required to get her there.
Sub Eleven Seconds is available to watch online until January 30, the conclusion of the Sundance Film Festival. Because of the pandemic, this is the second straight year Sundance won’t be held in person. The explorer pass costs $50 and grants you access to Sub Eleven Seconds and 58 other short films for the 10-day period. No other information has been made available about where the film will be released at the conclusion of Sundance.