The most memorable documentaries often play the long game, sticking around for years to see how things work out. In Steve James’ landmark “Hoop Dreams,” for instance, the choice was voluntary. In the gripping “The Sentence” it was more like an emotional compulsion.
Rudy Valdez was a New York-based working documentary cinematographer in 2007 when the unthinkable happened: his older sister Cynthia Shank, the sibling who’d always looked out for him, was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison due to circumstances that would have been absurd if the consequences weren’t so deadly serious.
Hoping to provide his sister, the mother of three young daughters, with a record of the events she was missing, Valdez would periodically journey from New York to the Shank home in Michigan to film family milestones.
So the first shots we see have a particularly artless quality, as 6-year-old Autumn, the oldest child, asks “Uncle Rudy, I’m getting ready for my dance recital. Are you going to watch me?”
Then the phone rings and Cindy’s husband Adam answers. It is Cindy, calling from prison to hear all about what is going on. The girls, not really understanding why their mother is gone, jostle each other for phone time, Adam tries to cope, and audience members begin a powerful emotional journey with a single family, a journey that will reveal the human cost of draconian laws that, in this case at least, cause personal chaos while protecting no one.
“The Sentence” then pulls back to give us Cindy’s backstory. Once determined to be the first in the family to go to college, Cindy fell in love with Alex, a drug dealer she lived with who ended up being killed.
Because she never sold drugs (“I was the girlfriend”), Cindy refused to plead and the authorities dropped the case. She moved on with her life, marrying Adam and becoming the mother to three girls.
Then, six years later, for reasons the film does not explain, the government changed its mind and Cindy was arrested, charged and convicted of conspiracy in all of Alex’s crimes.
Worse than that, the scourge of mandatory minimum sentencing meant the judge had no choice but to put her away for 15 years. “I was sentenced,” Cindy says simply, “to missing my daughters growing up.”
With Cindy no more than a voice on the phone for most of the film, Valdez interviews family members, including husband Adam, a regular guy who is angry and frustrated by the government’s actions. “I can’t be depressed,” he says. “I don’t have the time.”
Though all the girls appear on camera, including middle daughter Ava and baby Annalis, the child most heard is Autumn, the oldest.
First interviewed when she is 6, Autumn misses her mother terribly (“I think of her every second of the day and of the night”) but is too young to completely understand the amount of time involved until Cindy’s release, saying only “it will be later on.”
Though her emotional pain is great, Cindy is usually a rock on those frequent phone conversations, but when she is transferred from a prison in Illinois to one much farther away in Florida — which means a drastic cut in the amount of visits her family can make — she comes close to cracking on the call.
“I can’t be a mother from here,” she almost wails. “A mother is there.”
In addition to family, “The Sentence” interviews some of the lawyers who participate in Cindy’s case — attorneys who reveal that what is often referred to as “the girlfriend problem” has been an obvious flaw in mandatory minimum sentencing that no one has addressed for the decades it’s been in existence.
One of the attorneys who takes an interest in Cindy as her time behind bars approaches nine years is Tatjana Misulic of an organization called the Clemency Project that tries against long odds to get Cindy’s name on President Obama’s outgoing pardon list.
How that all plays out shouldn’t be revealed, but it is no surprise to say that director Valdez is there to record it all. What unnecessary imprisonment does to families is often written about in abstract terms, but to see what it did to one specific family runs an emotional gamut that the patience of this heroically committed filmmaker does full justice to.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena, on HBO starting Oct. 15.