Rudy Valdez didn’t intend to create an award-winning documentary when he picked up a camera and started filming his niece preparing for her first dance recital. All he wanted to do was capture the moment for the girl’s mother — Rudy’s older sister, Cindy Shank — who had just been sentenced to 15 years in prison for a drug ring she had nothing to do with.
Rudy simply didn’t want Cindy to miss out on the human moments she wouldn’t be around to see in the long years ahead: her eldest daughter Autumn’s navigation from early childhood into her teen years; middle daughter Ava’s first day of school; baby Annalis’s first everything. But along the way, he realized he was telling a much larger story.
“When this film started, I was not a filmmaker,” Rudy said after a recent screening of “The Sentence,” a documentary he made about his family, in their hometown of Lansing. “I became a filmmaker to make this film. … I initially started filming the day after Cindy went away. I just picked up a camera and started filming the girls. I didn’t know how long Cindy was going to be away because I was still trying to wrap my head around what the sentence meant. I just knew that for however long she was going to be away, I wanted her to watch the girls live. She was going to get pictures and phone calls, but I needed her to watch them run and play and jump and fight and scream, so it started that way.”
The result is a film that is just as much a family movie as it is a documentary. If you’re looking for a film that explains the finer points of mandatory minimums and the legislative efforts to get rid of them, there are better choices. But if you’re looking for a film that drives home the point that a prison sentence condemns more than just the person sent away, “The Sentence” says it better than most people could — because most people haven’t lived it.
“The Sentence” was shown at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and quickly gathered a lot of buzz. HBO picked it up for its documentary film series, and it will debut on the cable channel at 8 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 15. There’s even a few whispers that the movie may be headed toward the Oscars.
That’s quite a long way from Rudy’s primary goal when he started filming his nieces in 2008. Back then, Rudy and his family were in emotional turmoil — one more family doing what they could to make sense of a loved one who had been sentenced to a long prison stay.
It was something Rudy never dreamed could have happened to his family. He was the son of migrant farmers who had decided to settle in Lansing. His father became an entrepreneur and opened a store. His mother became a teacher. Rudy was the baby of his family, with one older brother and two older sisters, but it was the younger sister, Cindy, who he was closest to.
“She was not scared to take chances,” Rudy said. And she encouraged Rudy to take some, too. It was through her encouragement that Rudy picked up a camera in the first place.
But not all the chances Cindy took were good ones. When she was young, she fell in love with Alex and moved in with him, but he became a drug dealer. He was murdered, and a police sweep of their home turned up cocaine, marijuana and cash — enough evidence for prosecutors to decide that Cindy must have known that he was up to no good, even though she wasn’t personally involved in anything illegal.
Charges were eventually dropped against Cindy, and she was glad to put the close scrape with the law behind her. She met and married Adam Shank and they had three daughters. Everything was going well. Until the law changed its mind.
Using a bit of law that is sometimes known as “the girlfriend problem,” the case against Cindy was re-opened six years later. She turned down a plea deal, convinced that since she never dealt drugs, she wouldn’t be convicted. It proved to be a bad gamble. A prosecutor wanted her sentenced to 89 years in prison. She was sentenced to 15.
In her words, “I was told to take off my wedding ring, and that’s when I felt like crying. I heard the girls giggling outside in the hallway when I was being sentenced.” It would be a moment in time forever frozen in her memory.
Just as Cindy couldn’t believe that she could be sent to prison for 15 years for a nonviolent offense, her family struggled to come to terms with it, too. Rudy’s way of making sense of it was through film.
“I didn’t know (“The Sentence” was) going to get into Sundance. I didn’t know that anyone else was going to see this, ever,” Rudy said. “What I knew was that we were going to embark on a very tough 15 years, and I knew that as a family we were going to get through it with poise and grace, and I wanted to capture that.”
Rudy made a deliberate choice not to pack his movie with statistics or to stuff it with interviews with experts. Those are the sort of things will be forgotten soon after most people finish watching the closing credits, he said.
What people will remember is the way his father breaks down crying as he scraps metal to raise money that Cindy can use to call home.
Or the way Rudy and Cindy’s older sister, Nina, has to turn aside from the camera as she admits her visits with Cindy have become more infrequent as time goes on, and as the federal corrections system moves Cindy to more distant prisons.
Or the way Ava matter-of-factly says that she can no longer remember what her mother looks like outside of prison, since she was just two when Cindy was taken away. And that Annalis, an infant when Cindy was incarcerated, has no memory of her mother as a free woman at all.
Or the toll Cindy’s incarceration takes on her marriage with Adam, who is left to raise three young daughters on his own.
“Missing my daughters growing up. That’s what I was sentenced to,” Cindy says from prison.
No one — not even Cindy — would say that dating her former boyfriend, the drug dealer, was a good choice. But who, they all wanted to know, was being served by having her spend 15 years in prison?
Was society benefitting by having a mom of three behind bars? Her incarceration wasn’t stopping crime because she wasn’t committing any.
Taxpayers weren’t reaping a benefit. It cost them about $32,000 each year Cindy remained in prison.
And it sure wasn’t benefitting her family, as “The Sentence” shows.
As the years churn on, Rudy tries relentlessly to get his sister out of prison. He works with lawyers to appeal her case and then to seek clemency. That effort forms the basis of a plot that dominates the latter part of the documentary. But while legal gears slowly grind, Cindy’s daughters grow up at a relentless pace while their mother remains sidelined in prison 1,200 miles away.
For families who already know the reality of having a loved one incarcerated, “The Sentence” may not say anything new. But that’s not what it’s trying to do. All it aims to do is tell one family’s story honestly — and in doing so, it hits on truths that many families in similar situations already know.
For those who haven’t been touched by the justice system, “The Sentence” invites you in and asks you to take a seat at one family’s table.
Speaking after the showing at Rudy’s former high school — where the sniffling, and even weeping of the audience was audible throughout the auditorium during the film — Rudy said his intention was to make you become a part of his family as you watch “The Sentence.”
His film asks you to set aside questions of policy and politics and to simply join his family in their sorrow and suffering — and also their laughter and hope — for a little while. Who did Cindy’s sentence truly punish, and was it really worth it?
“The Sentence” debuts on HBO at 8 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 15.