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Doc Stars of the Month: Rudy Valdez and Cindy Shank, The Sentence

By Lauren Wissot

Filmmaker Rudy Valdez. Courtesy of HBOPart home movie, part activist doc, Rudy Valdez's The Sentence is that rare film that can bring even the most jaded filmgoer (yes, that would be me) to tears. Indie cinematographer Valdez spent nearly a decade shooting hundreds of hours of footage to create a portrait of his own close-knit family in the aftermath of his sister Cindy Shank's incarceration—the consequence of what's colloquially referred to as "the girlfriend problem." Shank, who'd never before been in trouble with the law, was sentenced to 15 years—the mandatory minimum—on conspiracy charges after her boyfriend, a drug dealer, was murdered. (Basically, she ended up taking the fall for the crimes he'd committed.) Six years after his death—after she'd been cleared of any wrongdoing, after she'd turned her life around—the cops suddenly came calling, and simply whisked away the devoted mother from her three young girls and loving husband.

With Valdez's heartfelt visceral doc set to air on HBO on October 15, Documentary was fortunate enough to chat with the devoted siblings about their firsthand experience with the Kafkaesque entity we (ironically!) call the US justice system.

So let me start with Cindy. What's it been like, both for you and your family, to be the focus of this film? Did you have any initial reservations about exposing your struggle to the larger world?

Cindy Shank: I didn't know initially, obviously, that it was gonna get as much recognition as it has, but I'm very grateful for that. And that people are paying attention, because I think it's very important. When I was locked up, I wanted nothing more than somebody fighting for me, and for us inside. So to know that people are listening is amazing to me.

As far as the girls, I do have reservations about what people might say. But at the same time, if anybody sees the film they'll know that I have nothing but pride for these little girls. They're so strong, they're so wise, and they've handled this so well. If anybody has anything negative to say, that's something that I might have to deal with personally.

I think the girls do a great job of explaining themselves, and everything that's happened to them —being vulnerable and just being open and honest. They're going through exactly what thousands and thousands of children are going through. This is what's happening to them—but they're just an example of what's truly happening. I want everybody to know it's not just us. When you lock somebody away, it's not just the person that you're locking away. This is who you're doing this harm to, who is actually in the sentence with them. It's the children.

And I think it's just our responsibility in a way. We've been given this platform. How could we not share it? How could we not tell everybody what's really happening?

That brings me to the next question I have for you—namely, what scars are the children left with? Or has it made them more resilient? And also, has the film helped—or hurt—in any way? How does the film play into the actual ongoing experience as well?

As far as my incarceration, I don't know what the long-term effects right now are gonna be. I don't think we'll know that for years to come. But I can see some right now. Like when we see the film together, Anna, usually at night—probably for the next couple of nights after we see it— it'll bring up memories for her and she'll talk and ask questions. We'll cry together, and it gives us our own conversation. It allows us to talk, and maybe something that she's forgotten about comes to mind. Autumn, I think she went from being this young—when I left she was so outgoing and talkative and all these things. She's now very introverted, and a thinker, and she's she's been damaged from it.

I remember when, after I'd come home and I was going to see my probation officer, and I had told the girls, "Mommy's gonna go for an hour-and-a-half drive each way, so I'll be back in three hours." The look on Annalis' face—she'd start panicking, and looking around, and grabbing me. "How long are you gonna be gone? Where are you going?"

So there are things that we're dealing with. We're slowly working through all those things. It's part of what happened. It's part of the scars. But I think the film actually helps. It helps us talk about it. It helps us with each other. Autumn will ask questions, or maybe Ava will forget about something and be, like, "Oh, wow, that did happen—and do you remember that day?" And it's laughing, it's crying, it's a lot of things.

So the film's actually been able to open you all up to having a conversation that you otherwise might have been more reluctant to have.

Yeah, absolutely. It really has been some form of therapy for us.

Cindy Shank's then-husband, Adam, with their kids, talking to Cindy on the phone. Courtesy of HBOTo me, one of the people in your family who really stands out is the father of your children. He's kind of this quiet hero, who doesn't really want to be known as such—and the most reluctant of all in terms of having the spotlight on him. Are you co-raising the children now? How do you navigate all these inevitably changed relationships?

Yeah, absolutely. His name is Adam. We were divorced during my incarceration, and I had to close the romantic side of our relationship off and move forward just as a survival mechanism. Clearly, that part of our relationship was over, but we were always great friends. When I came home one of the first things we did—well, he did—he was just, like, "We're gonna go to the court and apply for joint custody." And we are now co-parenting the girls.

He's a great guy. I don't know if he was reluctant—more that he's just kind of…Rudy and I do joke about this sometimes, that the only thing that probably doesn't come across on film that is true to life is that Adam is a talker. He's a bit of a social butterfly, but he comes across on film as—

Rudy Valdez: He comes across as very stoic. As a documentary filmmaker, that's my one failure: Really getting Adam—that guy can talk!

Wow! It doesn't come off that way.

CS: Adam is very vocal, very involved in the girls' lives. He's very proactive. We're good friends and he's family—he's always gonna be family—and I'm proud to say that that's their dad because he's such a good guy. You call him at seven in the morning on a Saturday after he's worked 60 hours that week and say, "Buddy, can you help me move?" He's gonna go and help you move, and bring his truck. So he's just a good man, and we're good friends. Nothing's perfect. We have our ups and downs as far as maybe he might have a certain idea of something, and I might have a certain idea of something. We're human and we're gonna have conflict here and there. But it's always because we want what's best for the girls. That's the bottom line.

That's so healthy. I'm guessing that this experience has spurred all of you to activism, so I'm also wondering, are you all involved in rectifying and eliminating unjust sentencing laws? What are you planning to be involved with, or what are you already involved with, in terms of the bigger picture?

RV: Well, from the moment Cindy went away there's been this whole other side of this entire thing, outside of making the film. I became an advocate, not only for Cindy, but also for other people who are serving these long sentences. One of the things I will say, this film was never made to be an advocacy piece for Cindy herself.

I was never going to stop making it and say, "OK, here's an example of one person, my sister, who deserves to be let out—and these are the reasons why we're fighting for her." That wasn't what this film was about. My intention was always to—once it became a documentary—was to film this until the end, and to show time, and show the ramifications this has on the people left behind.

Now, when Cindy was given clemency, I could have very easily been like, "Alright, my sister's out. I don't need to share this story." I don't need to put my family through this—to face all the cynics who were going to say things, and put my family in this spotlight in this vulnerable way.  I could have easily been like, "She's out. We can step aside and forget about all of this."

But I felt like that would have been such a disservice to what we had done up until that point. What I said to my family when we started making this documentary was, "If you're open and honest and vulnerable for me in front of the camera, I will make something good with this. We will help other people." It was always about the larger fight. It would have been a disservice to just say that Cindy is the person who deserves to get out.

There's a larger structural problem going on—a systemic problem that we wanted to shine a light on. The girls are emblematic of thousands of other children who are going through the same thing. Cindy's case—you can watch the movie and feel for her and feel like she's this outlier, or she's this rare case, but she is not. She is emblematic of thousands of other people facing these sentences, and that's what our fight is. That's why we continue putting the film out there.

There are a lot of amazing organizations that I've worked with over the course of a decade that are doing all of these different wonderful things—and they have been for over 30 years. We just want to be a part of that larger conversation. And if telling this personal story helps with that, or if other organizations can use the film as a tool for this larger fight for systemic change, then we want to be a part of that. And we will continue to be a part of that.

CS: We were just at the White House. We've screened twice there.

RV: We've screened on Capitol Hill. But it's purposely not a political film. It is not something that is bombarding you with stats or with pundits talking about the right and the left and the policies behind everything. Those films have been made. I felt like I didn't need to make that film.

I feel like what I had when I started gathering this footage and started putting it together—the strongest thing that I had was that I could show you the people behind the stats over time. At the end of the film when my oldest niece Autumn, Cindy's oldest daughter, looks up at the camera and says, "Hi, I'm Autumn Shank and I'm 13 years old." You see the growth, and the wear and tear on her. What she is carrying on her shoulders. Nothing speaks louder than seeing her face, seeing what this has done to her.

And by making this an apolitical film, it has helped us create a bipartisan effort for change. Republican Senator Mike Lee from Utah reached out during Sundance and said we need to show this on Capitol Hill. He paired up with Democratic Senator Cory Booker, and we brought this film to Capitol Hill as a symbol of why we need sentence reform now.

Yes, this is really a bipartisan issue—and it has been for a while. Everyone wants to fix this.

RV: And I think, with that being said, the fact that it is a bipartisan issue means that this issue needs to transcend voting and politics. This is a hearts-and-minds issue. It is a cultural shift that has to happen, and that's why this film was made the way it was made—so that you don't have to look at your party line to decide whether or not you can connect with this family or with this problem. It is a personal thing. And then you decide where you stand on that when policies are enacted and when you're voting. Not on whether you're right or left, but whether you're human and you feel for other people. That's the power of documentary. It's in showing real stories. Stats can't do that. Real people and real stories do that.

Are you hopeful, though—even with the Trump Administration? You've got people like Jeff Sessions who are kind of pushing back on this whole idea, right?

RV: Exactly. But when this film first started and Cindy first went away, all I heard at the beginning was, "Cindy's never gonna get clemency, you're never gonna get her out. This film's never gonna get made. This film has been made a hundred times. Nobody's gonna listen to your film. You're just this one guy doing this thing." I was met with cynicism throughout this entire process—and yet I never heard a hard "no." Nobody told me I couldn't fight for my sister.  Nobody told me I couldn't try and make this film. And I kept pushing and pushing and pushing. And we made something.

And now people are saying, "It's the Trump Administration; nothing is going to be changed." And I say, "You know what? I haven't heard a hard 'no.'" All I've heard is a bunch of maybes and maybe nots—but I'm gonna turn those into yeses. And I'm gonna turn those into hope. And I'm gonna continue to share this hearts-and-minds thing. I'm not attacking anybody on the right or the left. I'm saying, "Look at this problem in America." It doesn't matter who you voted for or what party line you're on. We are your constituents and we deserve justice.

But did you always think that this was going to be a bigger film? I thought it started out as a home movie.

RV: It 100 percent started as home movies. I was doing research on the activism side, and it sort of was this perfect storm that came together. I realized as I was deciding to make this a documentary that this was a much larger problem. It was a problem that was bigger than my sister, bigger than my family.

I wasn't a filmmaker when I started this film. I became a filmmaker to make this film. That first scene in the movie when Cindy calls home and tells Autumn, "You know what mommy's gonna do when you go to dance? I'm gonna lay down on my bed, I'm gonna close my eyes and I'm gonna think about you." I knew I had an opportunity to tell an intimate story, a story that is emblematic of the thousands of children left behind. That's when this started to become a bigger thing for me.

And I literally became obsessed with becoming the best filmmaker I could be—because I knew that I had an amazing story and I needed to do it justice. I needed to do my family justice so I dove in. I quit everything else in my life and focused on the documentary, on telling this story.

But were you ever working on other projects—and how did you balance those with this film? Or were you just not working on anything else at all?

RV: I was a teacher prior to all of this, and I was an actor and a writer. I was just sort of starting to become a production assistant on different things, but that was mostly as this creative thing as I was still trying to pursue acting. But as soon as I realized that this was going to be a documentary, I quit acting, I quit writing. I quit everything else. I dove headfirst into documentary.

And I became a production assistant so that I could learn. I turned that into being a sound mixer so I could learn how to do sound. I turned that into being a camera operator, eventually a cinematographer. So over the course of nine-and-a-half years, I carved out a little career for myself in documentary. Eventually I shot films for Sam Pollard, Sebastian Junger and Whoopi Goldberg. My first job was on the Sundance series Brick City, which followed Cory Booker for three-and-a-half years in his attempts to revitalize Newark. I dove headfirst into this all because I needed to make myself as strong a filmmaker as I possibly could for this film.

The Sentence is currently showing in theaters in New York and Los Angeles. The film premiered October 15 and will stream throughout the month on HBO Go and HBO Now.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for SalonBitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.