A New HBO Documentary Exposes the Absurdity of the War on Drugs
'The Sentence' follows a brother's incredible quest to get Barack Obama to pardon his incarcerated sister.
Still from 'The Sentence' courtesy HBO.
When Cindy Shank was arrested on federal drug charges in Michigan in 2007 and sentenced to 15 years, her brother Rudy Valdez couldn’t believe it. His sister didn’t have anything to do with the drug business. She was happily married with three little girls, and her only connection to the trade was a former boyfriend whom she dated six years prior. By the time the feds came calling, he was deceased. Valdez thought it was a tragic mix-up, but when he realized it wasn’t a mistake, and that his sister would be serving a 15-year federal-drug-sentence, he immediately started to look at the appeals process. He needed to find something to do to try and fix this abhorrent miscarriage of justice.
Early on in his research, Valdez came across presidential clemency. It seemed like a one in a million chance, but Valdez was determined to see his sister free. While he started figuring out avenues to gain that freedom, he began filming and documenting Cindy’s daughters as they grew up. It was going to be a kind of home movie that Cindy could watch when she came home. But the resulting footage turned into an amazing and heartfelt documentary, The Sentence, which won the audience choice award at Sundance in 2018 and premiers on HBO October 15. The film chronicles how incarceration, mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, and the misguided drug war affects families.
In late 2016, Cindy was granted clemency by President Obama and reunited with her family after nearly nine years buried in the belly of the beast. And of course, her brother Rudy was there to capture it all on film. What started as an act of love turned into a scathing indictment of our criminal justice system. VICE talked to Valdez and Shank by phone to find out why Rudy decided to make a documentary on his sister's plight, what it was like when Cindy watched the film for the first time, how big an impact the film will have in Trump’s America, and what it all means to Cindy in retrospect.
VICE: You started out shooting footage for Cindy of her kids growing up, and then it turned into something else. How many years into it did you decide, “I'm going to make this a documentary.”?
Rudy Valdez: It started off as me just wanting to capture footage for Cindy, knowing that she was going to be away from them. The very first footage you see was basically the day after she went away, March 1, 2008. I flew back to Michigan to film her oldest daughter Autumn’s first dance recital.
That was the very first time I filmed something that was going to end up being in the film, [but] it didn't really become a film for quite a few months. It sort of organically turned into a documentary. I wasn't a documentary filmmaker when I started this. I learned to become a documentary filmmaker to make this film. I became obsessive about making this film. I continued filming until November 2017.
In the film, Cindy says that line to Autumn, "Do you know what Mommy's going to do when you go dance? I'm going to lay down in my bed, I'm going to close my eyes, and I'm going to think about you.” And when I heard that line, something in me just sort of clicked, and I became a filmmaker at that moment. I realized that I had an opportunity to tell a story that you don't get to hear about. When you hear about mass incarceration and you hear about this war on drugs and you read all of these stats, you never get to hear about the children and family left behind and the ripple effect that these sentences have on the community.
You're in prison, you're doing time, and your brother's documenting this stuff with your kids for you. Then it evolved and became something more. What did you think when you found out that your brother was making a film on your plight?
Cindy Shank: Rudy shared with me early on about the filming, but he didn't come to me about a documentary until probably a couple years in. He was letting me know, I really want to make this into an actual documentary. I knew I was going to be [in prison] and I just felt that our story should be told. Not just mine, but everything that was happening. Because I just felt like somebody needed to know what was going on. I didn't know it was going to turn into this—Sundance and HBO.
This is amazing and it's giving us this opportunity to speak louder and let more people hear. When I first went in I was completely in shock and didn't know what was happening. I kept thinking, "This is wrong, this is a mistake, why am I here?" I'm going through all these emotions like, "We're going to figure this out, I'm going to go home," and then I start meeting all these women who are in there for exactly the same thing I'm in there for, and I'm starting to realize, "Oh, this isn't a mistake. They really want me here.”
Do you think the film, for you, was almost like a therapeutic tool that allowed you to deal with your sister's incarceration?
Valdez: Definitely. It was therapeutic in a lot of ways. As soon as Cindy went away, I decided that it was time to fight for her on the legal end and on the activism side. I was making calls, trying to figure out the appeals, trying to figure out the legality of everything, trying to study the case, trying to make connections to people who may be able to help. And on the other end, I was working on this documentary trying to formulate a structure and a story that would ultimately not even help my sister, but help the overall fight for criminal justice reform and sentence reform.
Every single day I was just trying to figure out, "How can I move an inch today?” I've seen other people either get active and start helping their loved one while they're incarcerated, or they sort of let that loved one fade into the background and go on with their life. And they're both coping mechanisms. I so badly didn't want Cindy to fade back and that become my coping mechanism. I put her and her daughters and her story and the fight in the forefront of my brain the entire time. That was my therapy.
When was the first time you watched the film and how did it make you feel?
Shank: I watched the film for the first time right before it went to Sundance. One time before Rudy showed me a seven-second clip of the girls and I just lost it. I couldn't take it in, even that seven seconds. The first time was in the living room of my mom's house with my daughters and my family and I missed half of it because I was so busy crying because these are images of my girls that I'd never seen. I'm looking at everything, I'm looking at their expressions, what they were wearing.
Looking in their rooms for the first time. Whether it's Autumn's room or Annalise’s things. Seeing where a picture of me was hanging that they kept. I'm taking in so much 'cause those are the things that I'm trying to see. I'm looking at Ava's smile and seeing a dimple and how funny does something have to be to make that dimple pop up? Honestly, I don't think I saw the film completely until [I watched it] about five or six times. I came to Rudy [and told him] the film's good, it's good. He's like, “You've seen it." I was like, "I know, but I couldn't take it all in." I had to take it in in bits and pieces.
What kind of impact do you think your film’s going to have in what a lot of people would call Trump's America?
Valdez: I think that from the beginning of this entire process, from Cindy being sent away, I feel like I've been met with cynicism at every juncture. From me first going to people and saying I'm going to fight for my sister, I'm going to figure out a way. Immediately people were saying, "Eh, the odds are it's not going to happen." Everyone was telling me the odds aren't good, this isn't a good time. Things aren't going to work.
Then when I started making this film and I’d show people and they would say, "Oh, ya know that film has already been made. Like nobody really wants to see that version of it." But I just kept plugging away because I kept saying, "Ya know, I've never heard a hard no." Like, nobody was like, "You can't do this and this isn't going to happen." So, to me, those were a lot of maybes and I'm always somebody who says, "You're going to give me a maybe, I'm going to turn that into a yes." So I just kept plugging away.
Their whole thing was, "Ya know, your film's coming out in Trump's America, and maybe this is the worst time for it to come out." But, to me, I'm saying it's the best time for it to come out. We're pulling the sheets back on a lot of things in our country right now, and everything is being laid out on the table. And this is one of those things. Criminal justice reform is certainly one of those things that need to be addressed and nobody has told me no, that there isn't going to be any change, so I'm gonna say yeah, let's make some change. Let's put this out there.
In retrospect, what do your brother's efforts mean to you? It’s usually an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality when people are incarcerated, but your brother went super hard for you. How has your relationship with him changed or not changed?
Shank: That's my little brother, and honestly, I don't know if I could've done what he did. I'm very blessed and fortunate to have somebody who was willing to dedicate their entire life to helping me. And not just me, but being there for my girls, being a good son, being a good brother, being a good uncle. He'd email me and say, "The girls' birthday's coming up next month, what do they want?" I'd say "Ava wanted this teddy bear or Autumn wanted this necklace." And he’d buy it for them.
I would send him a card for each one of them and he'd attach it to their gifts and send it to them from me. It wouldn't even have to be something so grand. He would do small things and to help us. I love this guy. I give him a lot of credit for getting me home. I know in my heart that he screamed from the rooftops and he fought every day to bring me home, to bring me and my daughters closer together. And I am home. I am forever grateful to him and for everything that he's done and I love my stinky little brother.
The Sentence is available on HBO October 15.
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