Uncle Rudy Valdez can’t afford to be depressed. His sister, Cindy Shank, has been in prison for as long as his nieces can remember. Cindy was sentenced to a mandatory fifteen years on drug charges because of President Reagan’s war on drugs, and Rudy has been holding her family together. Sometimes he can barely hold it together himself, but he took the most heart-rending bits of family footage in HBO’s feature-length documentary The Sentence. The results are equal parts harrowing, sad and affirming as he tracks the progress of her incarceration and appeals.
Valdez’s The Sentence is a purposeful tear-jerker, but it’s no Terms of Endearment. It won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year on its own terms. Cindy was sentenced for crimes committed by a dead boyfriend and her presence hangs over the footage like a ghost for most of the film. She is a vacant slot filling every frame with her absentia. Rudy is raising her young daughters and, through their eyes, we see her not there to make breakfast. We see her not showing up at school recitals. We slowly see her image disappearing before our eyes as the kids lose sight of their mom because of increasingly infrequent phone calls.
Slapped with a 15-year prison sentence for a first-time non-violent offense, six years after the crime, Cindy says she was sentenced to “missing my daughters grow up.” This becomes the focus as the details of the sentence behind The Sentence is doled out in pieces. The film is nakedly manipulative but not exploitative. Cindy’s involvement with the Michigan drug ring happened years before she was sentenced, and was tangential at best. Shank’s drug-dealing boyfriend was shot by an unidentified assailant killed outside their home in Michigan in In May 2002.
The boyfriend died at the hospital. In initial interviews, Shank lied to the police about the location of the shooting. When the police arrived at the house they found a stockpile of cocaine inside. Cindy was questioned, but no charges were filed. The boyfriend had been dead for six years when the police came knocking as second time. Cindy was charged just before the statute of limitations was set to expire. Prior to when she was first brought in for questioning she was a good law-abiding student, and after it she got married and had three daughters. The three young girls are unpretentious, for the most part, yet perfectly adorable.
Uncle Rudy earnestly tries to live a life, get his sister an appeal and raise her daughters. He even allows himself to appear fatigued, something Cindy takes defensively as her composure is broken by the institution. Over the course of a decade, Cindy gets transferred from prison to prison, from state to state, seemingly arbitrarily. Family visits become less frequent. The documentary inadvertently shows how the system gets into her system. She acknowledges how much she’s changed in prison by vowing she’s willing to live with boots on her throat every day just to see her daughters more often.
Mandatory minimum sentences were designed to discourage drug dealing but did nothing to reduce illegal drug use or trade. Cindy wasn’t found guilty of dealing drugs, she was sentenced for failing to prevent someone else from selling drugs. Cindy refused a plea bargain because she hadn’t sold drugs, and state and federal cases against her were dismissed at the time of the initial incident. She would have been sentenced to 13 years under the plea.
The filmmaker speaks with a few legal experts, but the documentary isn’t interested in specifics. Activists have been fighting laws that put people in jail for knowing about other people’s crimes, especially when it involves family members, but Cindy was only a girlfriend. Through the course of seeking personal clemency for his sister, Valdez becomes an advocate for the disproportionate penalties of mandatory minimum laws.
This is not a courtroom drama and a lot of evidence is left out. We don’t hear details about the crimes, how much Cindy knew or why her ex-boyfriend was murdered. The audience doesn’t even get the name of the ex-boyfriend. We know Shank decides to divorce Cindy so the kids “have some kind of mother in their life,” but doesn’t tell us whether he ever gets remarried.
The soundtrack is very effective. Written by producer Sam Bisbee, it pours just the right amount of syrup on a dish that’s hard to swallow. The Sentence is the first feature film from New York City-based camera operator Valdez, wrote it with Viridiana Lieberman. It is a little repetitive, some of the home footage hits the same emotional points and the kids sometimes look like they are performing for the camera. But there are also moments when they seem altogether real. Sometimes they fidget during the phone calls.
The film’s opening sequence ends with Cindy and Adam’s daughter Autumn getting ready to interview her uncle, the director. This cements the intimacy of the players in the very foundation of the shoot. Valdez isn’t an outsider, he is an interested party with a personal story to tell. He is not a born reformer, someone driven by universal moral and ethical questions of law and order. This is his sister he’s talking about. These are his sister’s kids. By focusing on the extremely intimate and personal pain, he makes the case for thousands of unheard appeals. As the documentary shows, President Obama did release many people like Cindy, but punishments and crimes may never be an easy fit. The Sentence highlights the personal damage inflicted by the myopia of blind justice.
The Sentence opens in select theaters on October 12 and premieres October 15, 2018 on HBO.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.
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