Jazz Tangcay talks to Rudy Valdez on filming his sister’s incarceration and the toll prison took on her family in HBO’s The Sentence.
Rudy Valdez was teaching, writing and acting when his sister Cindy was sentenced to prison for conspiracy charges related to crimes committed by her deceased ex-boyfriend. He set out to film holidays and birthdays so she wouldn’t miss out on key moments in her daughter’s lives. It was then that he decided to take the camera and start documenting this important story of the toll mass incarceration does to families when they are separated.
Valdez is in a jovial mood when I ask how Cindy is doing, but it’s still a very emotional story he has to tell. It wasn’t just a very personal story, but one he hopes reaches others through the human side of incarceration.
Read our conversation below:
I should start by asking how your sister is doing now?
Oh, I don’t know. I don’t talk to her anymore. [laughs] I’m kidding. She’s doing really well. Since the film was released, she and I have been non-stop and traveling with it. We’ve been trying to help with the message of criminal justice reform and it’s been non-stop. It’s been amazing to not seeing it die. It’s just been wonderful to watch.
I moved here four years ago, and what I’m learning about the criminal justice system is a real shocker. It’s such a personal story, and you’ve done documentary work before as a cinematographer, so when did you want to tell this story?
I wasn’t working in film when I started this. I was teaching. I was an actor. I was filming my sister’s daughters out of necessity almost. One of the things I noticed or thought about when Cindy was taken away, I thought about birthdays and holidays and all these things she was going to miss. I just wanted to give her the opportunity for her to watch them grow up and that’s where it started. I was filming holidays and birthdays and anytime I could fly back to Michigan to be with the girls. It was four or five months into Cindy’s sentence and Autumn was having her first dance recital. Organically, Cindy called and she has this conversation and she says that line in the documentary, I’m going to go to bed and close my eyes and I’m going to think about you.’ The second that happened, I realized that not only was this terrible injustice happening to my sister and thousands of other women and men that were being incarcerated under these laws, but you also have to think about the children left behind. I realized I needed to share that story and that I had an opportunity to tell a story of the kids left behind. I quit teaching, writing and acting and I dedicated my life to the documentary, figuring out how to tell the story. All the credits you see, it was my film school to learn how to tell this story. I carved out this story learning so I could make this.
I really couldn’t get my head around and the punishment she was given. She was torn away from her family and a good contributing member of society. What was your reaction to all of that?
I think my first reaction was this was unfair and unjust. You’ve lived here, and you’re starting to figure out this justice system. I’ve lived here for twenty years, and it took this happening for me to realize all of this. As soon as this happened to my sister, I thought it was a fluke and I thought someone made a mistake, but I realized it was happening to so many people. I started looking at other films that had been made on the subject matter. I started figuring out this figure link and wondered why people were not up in arms. I filmed throughout the decade, and I wondered how to have the most impact. I asked what was I going to be able to do with this story? I didn’t want it to be in vain. I needed to do something positive with it. As we went into the edit, I realize there could have been other stories I could have made with the footage – a salacious film, maybe something political that could go after a certain political party and I thought those films had already been made. They’d been made by great filmmakers and I wanted to do something that would have an impact. I wanted to tell a human story and wanted to put a human face that was emblematic of all the people going through this.
When I asked my sister if I could make this film, I went back to her after a few years, I told her, I said, “I’m going to film until you come home because I need to show the full length of this sentence and what a sentence does.”In essence, I was telling her, this isn’t going to help you, but it’s going to carry the full impact so it can help so many others. I wanted to put a human face on that. I didn’t want to attack anyone. I simply wanted people to connect to it and have it transcend politics. I wanted people to say here’s a human reason why we need to change this.
I can not imagine the emotional journey that you’ve been on, but talk about shooting Cindy leaving prison.
That was so emblematic for me for many reasons. I remember the first time the girls went to visit her and you see me hanging out of the car and it’s a terrible shot. I’m barely peeking through the window. I was terrified because I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to shoot there. You fast forward to her coming out free, I remember my brother in the driver’s seat and we weren’t supposed to leave the car, but he couldn’t contain himself. He runs out and gives her a hug. For a split second, I do the math in my head and think if I get out and wonder if I’m getting arrested for filming her, but it was worth it. I had to tell the story. I run out there. If you let the footage play longer than what’s shown in the film, you hear someone yell, ‘You’re not meant to be filming?’ I just keep filming, but that day – nothing was going to stop me from capturing that story. It was emotional, and it still feels extremely surreal. This entire process still feels surreal. Especially when you see the impact, it’s having.
You talk about her being in the county jail and then you see her being moved around. What does that do because that’s not cheap to travel?
That was the toughest part for Cindy and her girls. Even at her closest, she was six hours. She started off in Illinois, and that was a long drive with the little girls and all the things that go into it add up and it becomes pricey. For the first few years, she was seeing the girls every 6 to 8 weeks. In a visiting room, she was with them for a few hours. The visits are lovely, but they’re not in a lovely place. She’s moved to Florida because the facility she was housed in was closed down so then it’s a 22-hour drive from her hometown. You can see in the film that we don’t come from money. During that time, the girls would visit her once a year and it was devastating for her. Ultimately, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back and that was a dark time. She couldn’t see the girls. A flight for three young girls, hotel and all the things that go with that are a few thousand dollars. That’s extremely difficult. That was important for me to film because people don’t see the toll it takes on a family when you have a loved one incarcerated. We talk about reforming our justice system, but at the same time, on the Federal time, from the moment my sister went away, every single piece of what keeps a person from going back to prison starts to get stripped away. You take away the contact. You upcharge for calls. You charge outrageous prices for food in the visitor’s area. All these things are what keep people from going back. The connection to family and the connection to home and hope. The longer someone is in prison, the harder it is to maintain that connection. I wanted to show what we were doing, and what we’re doing is wrong. If we want people to come home and to be contributing members of society, we would want them to keep that connection.
Your dad on camera was so emotionally gripping to watch, but then you turn the camera on yourself and you made that choice.
It was completely organic. I’m a basketcase emotionally, and I put a lot of thought into what I do. I ask am I honoring people who allow me to tell their story? Back then, when I’m talking to the camera. I’m waiting for the girls, and they were running late that day. I had just arrived in Michigan, and I’m checking the lens. I was asking if I was asking too much of my family and there I was asking people to share their emotions, but I realized I had never asked that of myself. I looked at the camera and said I was just going to talk. I just needed to have this free thought happen. I talked to the camera, and that’s when I had the emotional breakthrough. I, in a weird way, was shielded from it because I was looking at it through a viewfinder. People ask about the coward’s quote. I truly felt I was taking the easy way out by doing this. I could no longer do that, and I needed to be vulnerable as well.