Directed by Rudy Valdez
Los Angeles Premiere at LALIFF 2018
By María Margarita López
On opening night of LALIFF, director Rudy Valdez took the audience on an emotional journey. The first time filmmaker’s feature debut, “The Sentence,” is a deeply personal documentary about his sister, Cindy Shank, and the impact a 15-year prison sentence had on her family; husband Adam and their three daughters, four-year-old Autumn, two-year-old Ava, and newborn Annalis.
The film begins with home movies that were made to record key moments so Cindy could see what she missed in her daughters’ lives while she was in federal prison. These moments turn into a story that resonates with thousands of families across the U.S. who are affected by “the girlfriend problem,” a term that refers to Reagan-era mandatory minimum sentencing laws that restricted the judge’s ability to use discretion in sentencing.
These laws resulted in harsher sentences for women who were convicted of conspiracy and imprisoned for crimes committed by their boyfriends. Between 1980 and 2014, the United States realized a 700 percent increase in the number of women behind bars, according to the non-profit The Sentencing Project, some of the data the filmmaker found during rigorous research. The minimum sentence was 15 years.
Cindy’s case was not unusual. For many women it did not matter to the courts if they’d turned their lives around. Cindy paid the price for her deceased ex-boyfriend’s crimes and the film takes her personal story and creates a window into broader issues including the effects of mass incarcerations, the prison industrial complex, and the hurdles involved in getting a sentence commuted.
In the hands of Valdez, the doc also delivers a story of love. It is moving to see how daughters miss a mother, and the lengths a family goes to in order to maintain ties across time and distance.
Director Valdez does not sugar coat difficult issues, but respects his subject’s willingness to participate. (No other director would have been able to achieve this level of trust from these subjects). His nieces’ raw emotions hit the audience with full force, as does the candor from the rest of his family. Valdez accomplishes much as a one-man crew, first starting to film with consumer-grade phones and cameras, then moving his way up to robust Canon equipment by the end of the decade.
Valdez’ evolution as a filmmaker parallels his growth as an advocate for his sister’s clemency. He organically informs the audience of the laws, policies and technicalities underlying his argument this is unjust sentencing. Neither Cindy nor the film makes excuses for why she is serving time, but the facts presented in this emotional story, and watching those girls grow up without their mother, calls into question if $64 billion a year on the warehousing of inmates under these laws is money wisely spent.
“The Sentence” will be released by HBO later this year.
María Margarita López is film producer and co-founder of AjuuaEntertainment. She is based in Los Angeles.