Earlier this month, South Florida News Service went to an advance screening of “The Sentence,” a documentary detailing the journey of director Rudy Valdez and his family in their struggle to free his sister from a lengthy prison sentence. Sometimes referred to as the “Girlfriend Problem,” witnessing certain federal crimes and failing to report it to law enforcement can cause that person to receive a sentence similar to that of the perpetrator.
Cindy Shank was sentenced to 15 years under mandatory minimum sentencing laws for failing to report the numerous drug crimes committed by her ex-boyfriend. Though Valdez acknowledges the crime in the film, he points out the injustice of the length of the sentence, as judges are unable to reduce it regardless of the circumstances.
After the credits rolled, many viewers wiped away tears. While the ending is ultimately triumphant, it wasn’t without a ton of bumps in the road. The film has made it to the Sundance film festival, and has been picked up by HBO. SFNS asked Valdez to elaborate on some of the most important aspects of his journey, and what it took to get to where he and his family are now.
SOUTH FLORIDA NEWS SERVICE: Just right off the bat, what was the hardest part to film? You said when you were talking to your dad [during a Q&A following the showing] it was kind of hard to keep the camera on.
RUDY VALDEZ: Yeah, that was very difficult, watching my dad cry was extremely tough. It was one of my gut-checks throughout this process. There were a lot of moments of — you know — if I had to pinpoint another moment that was really difficult for me it was on the Florida trip with [my nieces]. I’m doing this little interview with the girls outside of their hotel and Ava is talking to me, the middle one, is talking to me about how happy she is to come and see mom, but also how it’s sad because she doesn’t know when she’s going to see her again and then she sorts of breaks off and starts doing these silly faces… And that was really difficult for me because I knew exactly what she was doing. She was creating this defense mechanism that she was hurting so much and she knew I was hurting, that she wanted to change the air and she needed the laugh and she needed someone to know she was ok; I did that growing up too so those moments, when I saw the girls using these different defense mechanism were very, very tough. They were subtle little things, but they were things that rocked me to my core.
SFNS: What was it like working with HBO to produce, to get the movie out there?
VALDEZ: Well HBO acquired it at Sundance so they came on at the back-end of everything, but they have been amazing. I’ve been fortunate enough to shoot other films, things that have gone on to HBO as a cinematographer so HBO really felt like family. I knew the people, one of the producers who had worked on some of the other films that I’d shot came to me and they’re like ‘We would love to meet with you about this film’ and I told them when we sat down and they were like ‘What do you want?’ I told them what was important to me is I didn’t make this film to make money. It wasn’t my purpose, my purpose [of] this film was to make change and I need the freedom to be able to go show it. Not only to audiences that want to see it, but audience that need to see it and they have been absolutely amazing. Letting me travel the country and show it to anyone I wanted to and all these screenings and they continue to be supportive in my grassroots campaign to try and get the message out there, so HBO has been really phenomenal to work with.
SNFS: You’ve mentioned you wanted to make this film for change, and you did mention celebrities like Kim Kardashian who has been able to use her platform for something great. Do you think people seeing this film and hearing these things this will change our justice system?
VALDEZ: I’m one of these people as you see in the film, every time somebody would tell me no I never heard “no,” I heard “we need to take another direction.” Nos are maybes to me and maybes turn into yeses as long as you keep hope and a lot of people are very disenfranchised, and they don’t feel like our current administration is an administration that’s going to really take in this film and say “we need to make change,” but to me, nobody has told me “no.” I’m teaming up with every organization that wants to team up and it’s not a single thing. It’s not going to be my film that makes change, it’s going to hopefully be my film along with many other people in this conversation to help make change. I think we can do it.
SFNS: From a filmmaking aspect, how do you feel you grew as a filmmaker besides just [The Sentence] and your other projects?
VALDEZ: When this film started, I inherently had something that all documentary filmmakers need, and that was trust from my subjects. I knew that I had that with this film as I started even though I didn’t know how to make the film, so I was doing the technical work on the side, trying to make those things catch up with each other. And as much as I learned in other people’s films how to technically make my film, I was also learning from my film how to make other people’s films. As a documentary filmmaker, I quickly realized that the weight that my power has to have somebody tell me their story and trust me with their story — there’s a lot of responsibility in that. I knew, filming my family, that if this film ever got out anywhere, that they would have to live with it for the rest of their lives, and I owed it to them to be honest. I took that same feeling to every project I’ve worked with on this side too. Whenever anybody would trust me enough to be vulnerable and honest in front of my lens, I owed them that responsibility to be an honest filmmaker and tell a good story, so they went hand-in-hand. I’m not a perfect filmmaker, I’m not a great filmmaker, I’m a learning filmmaker and if I were to make this film in 10 more years, it would probably be completely different. I think the one thing I learned is that you just don’t settle. You don’t take a failure as a no and you get up and shoot the next day and you make more content and you keep pushing. That’s what it’s done to me.
“The Sentence” was released on Oct. 12 and is available now on HBO Now and HBO Go.