In his feature directorial debut—The Sentence, which recently won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival—Rudy Valdez appears in a brief scene during a contemplative moment, becoming as vulnerable as those he’s filming. Valdez confesses, “I don’t know what it is about standing behind the camera but it’s allowed me to be able to cope with a lot of the things that I’ve seen.”
This coping mechanism—the ability to be a thoughtful, professional filmmaker even when telling a deeply personal story which shook the very core of his family—has yielded a film which elicited a tearful standing ovation following its premiere screening at Sundance, exposing a social injustice that has impacted a large segment of our society.
And that exposure will increase as HBO made a deal at Sundance to acquire the TV and digital distribution rights to the documentary.
The Sentence introduces us to Valdez’s sister, Cindy Shank. The mother of three, Shank was incarcerated in 2007 for tangential involvement with a Michigan drug ring years earlier. She was sentenced even though her then live-in boyfriend drug dealer was shot and killed some time back—and at that point she was charged with no crime.
As the girlfriend, though, she eventually found herself targeted by prosecutors,
Despite her alleged participation—she contended she was not involved in any drug conspiracy—and the nonviolent nature of the charges, Shank was subject to mandatory minimum drug sentencing of 15 years in a federal prison. Mandatory sentencing didn’t allow the judge any discretion, even though circumstances of the case called for a much shorter prison term, if not probation.
Valdez spent about a decade shooting footage documenting his nieces growing up so his sister could at some point see their accomplishments and various personal milestones.
But this project evolved into something much bigger, becoming an intimate portrait of the devastating consequences that an unjust mandatory minimum drug sentence can have on a family. For Shank, this included her daughters, her now ex-husband Adam, her parents and of course Valdez himself.
Valdez took the initiative. He fervently pursued a longshot, seeking clemency for Cindy which was granted just as President Barack Obama prepared to leave office in late 2016.
The Sentence is the ninth film from Park Pictures Features, which was launched in 2010, to make the Sundance cut. But it’s the first documentary ever produced by Park, the motion picture division of commercial/branded content production house Park Pictures. Jackie Kelman Bisbee, who partnered with her husband Sam Bisbee and filmmaker Lance Acord, to form Park Pictures Features, noted that The Sentence has whetted the company’s appetite for the documentary discipline.
Park Pictures Features plans on doing more documentaries, with Kelman Bisbee describing The Sentence as being “a highlight of my career.”
She is also bullish on Valdez’s filmmaking future spanning long and short form fare. On the latter score, Kelman Bisbee said that Valdez “will have a commercialmaking career with us.” He will be handled for spots and branded content by Park Pictures in which Kelman Bisbee and Acord are partnered.
The path to filmmaking
The Sentence chronicles a long, arduous journey, a story which got told thanks to the journey taken by Valdez to become a filmmaker.
In fact, Bisbee and Kelman Bisbee knew Valdez long before he got into directing. It dates back to when Valdez was their daughter’s pre-school teacher—and well before Shank went to prison.
“Back then, Sam was a singer/songwriter,” recalled Valdez. “I would go with my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, to hear him perform. We loved his music, went to his shows all the time. We became friends with Sam and Jackie, and when my sister went to prison, I felt close enough to talk to them. They put me in touch with different people who might be able to help."
Valdez continued, "They gave me strong support emotionally and intellectually. And then when the filming process began, I would constantly send them scenes. They gave me feedback. They knew the footage more intimately than anyone I worked with over the years. I trusted them and their feedback. They were a huge help as I was sort of making this film on my own. When Cindy was granted clemency, I was approached by others. But I didn’t want to go anywhere but Park with Sam and Jackie. Park was home to me. In fact, Sam was able to go back to his music roots and score The Sentence. I truly believe this film is what it is because of Park Pictures, the trust they had in me, the encouragement they provided. Sam told me, ‘We believe in you. We believe in the story and want you to make the film you want to make.”
Valdez is a self-taught filmmaker. He got involved in acting, doing theater in high school and college. But he was turned off by the audition process and “having things projected on you.”
He related, “Like most failed actors, my answer was to write a one-man show so my family could see me.” The show found an audience as he took it on tour for a year and a half.
Needing to get a job, he began to coach basketball, a summer camp position leading to a teaching gig where he met a couple in the film biz. They gave him access to a film set to observe and he began to spend his free time working for them, serving as a production assistant, editing now and then.
Valdez began taking photos of lighting setups, recreating what he saw in production, staging setups in his bedroom. “I did this to catch up on the tech side and with cameras. What saved me is that I had a strong base of story because of my acting and writing background. Elements were coming together for me to tell stories as a filmmaker.”
Valdez began working for the Sundance Channel, eventually leading to his shooting for a documentary series there, Brick City, where he learned an important lesson.
“I was working the camera as one of our main characters had one of the worst days of her life,” Valdez recalled.
He went on to share, “She was finding out terrible news and I was there capturing it. That night, part of me wanted to quit. I get to turn off the camera and come home. But she continues to hurt. I had to reconcile that for myself. I don’t know if others were feeling the same but I needed to figure things out. I came to feel that if I am to continue doing this, then I need to honor the people who are willing to be vulnerable, that I need to help give them a voice."
Valdez then paused for a moment and then affirmed, "That’s the reason I got into filmmaking to begin with—to have a voice. And part of being a filmmaker means that it’s especially important to give others a voice who don’t usually have one. That’s where my talents lie.”