Based on the 10 minutes of extended sniffling and even sobbing that filled the theater during its premiere, Rudy Valdez’s The Sentence, showing as part of the U.S. Documentary Competition at Sundance, plays like gangbusters.
Increasingly manipulative as it goes along — in a literal and indisputable way, not even as a pejorative — The Sentence is so committed to its concentration on emotion and heart that it’s difficult not to get carried away, and it feels almost churlish to quibble with the intellectual responses it barely aspires to.
The Sentence isn’t just a personal story for Valdez, it’s the personal story that has dominated his life and the life of his entire family for a decade.
In 2008, Valdez’s sister Cindy was sentenced to 15 years in prison which, in and of itself, isn’t complicated. The situation behind the incarceration is very complicated. Basically, Cindy received a mandatory minimum sentence for conspiracy charges stemming from crimes actually perpetrated by a drug-dealing boyfriend who had been dead for six years. In the interim, Cindy had stuck to the straight-and-narrow, married genial ginger Adam and had three Russian-nesting-doll adorable daughters. Then one morning at dawn, authorities knocked on the door, revisiting charges that had been abandoned years earlier, pulling her away from her family.
The Valdez/Shank family had already lived a remarkably documented life, and Uncle Rudy was determined to continue the home video chronicles in Cindy’s absence as a record of the childhoods she was being forced to miss. Along the way, Valdez and his siblings became advocates seeking clemency for Cindy and arguing against the blanket, discretion-starved and disproportionate penalties that often come with mandatory minimum laws.
As an incredibly intimate and exposed piece of family storytelling, The Sentence cuts deep. Cindy and Adam’s daughters were basically born with cameras running, and they’re naturals when it comes to hamming it up, but they also demonstrate a level of introspection beyond their years when talking to Uncle Rudy. There are more than a few circumstances in which using a 6-year-old girl as a documentary talking head might come across as exploitative, but Valdez has the advantage of familial comfort and the initial innocence of his pursuit. He’s just asking little Autumn to talk to and about her mother, and then he’s able to hand the camera off to his niece and let her interview him. And even if it’s an overdose of sentiment, it’s an overdose that feels shared and convivial. Autumn begins with a preternatural level of camera awareness, but a child’s concept of what is happening to her mother. Her younger sisters initially only mug for the camera and exhibit excitement before their periodic visits to see Cindy.
As the years pass and Cindy is pushed from prison to prison, and visits become less frequent, and all three girls mature, their perspectives change and their memories of their mom become more scattered, though those memories frequently align with the home movies that Valdez or Cindy shot in less weighty times. We see the cost to Rudy and his parents and to his three nieces and to Adam at a pace that’s subtle and sad and hopeful and compassionate. There are choices that Adam and Cindy’s dad make that are tough and are treated in a way that’s honest and nonjudgmental. We’re able to chart the changes to Cindy’s temperament, since through phone calls from prison and her own appearances in those old tapes, Valdez keeps her present in the documentary about her absence.
A third-party filmmaker, even one with the most fiery interest in Cindy’s plight, couldn’t get this story in this way, nor probably could an outside cinematographer. Whether he’s shooting in well-composed video or filming with an iPhone, it’s just Valdez behind the camera. Valdez’s closest collaborator who doesn’t share his DNA is probably producer Sam Bisbee, who also wrote the tear-abetting score and original songs — an unusual combination of filmmaking hats — and editor and co-writer Viridiana Lieberman.
The Sentence isn’t nearly as effective as a piece of advocacy filmmaking, where it wants us to be outraged about a lot of the injustices, but not informed about any of them. It’s hard to know if the biggest injustice is the mandatory minimum issue, the so-called “girlfriend problem” that finds Cindy taking the fall for a significant other’s misdeeds or the never explored story of how Cindy came to be charged at all, right on the eve of the expiration of the statute of limitations. There’s a general acceptance that because she probably knew what the boyfriend was doing, Cindy was guilty of something, only to be over-charged and over-sentenced. Although Valdez has made a conspicuous decision not to have this be a courtroom drama or really to address Cindy’s specific case in any terms, conversations sometimes touch on appeals or the process of seeking clemency. A few attorneys pop up in the early going to explain the origins of mandatory minimums, and I think Valdez wants us to be very angry about them despite barely touching on the many reasons that are far more tangible than “They make mothers miss dance recitals.”
The issue of who’s doing what to get Cindy freed and how much paperwork might be expended becomes less important than the tears expended, and The Sentence wants to be a triumph of love and keeping the faith, not political machinations. One might get you to write your Congressman and fill out an online petition. The other will make you bawl.
Director-cinematographer: Rudy Valdez
Writers: Rudy Valdez and Viridiana Lieberman
Producers: Sam Bisbee and Jackie Kelman Bisbee
Executive Producers: Wendy Neu, Lance Acord, Theodora Dunlap
Editor: Viridiana Lieberman
Music: Sam Bisbee
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)