For director Rudy Valdez, telling his sister’s story of incarceration was a journey unlike any other. With camera in hand, he documented the emotional roller coaster his family endured as his sister Cindy was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 15 years in jail. His film, The Sentence, gives viewers a first hand look at what incarceration does to those that are left outside prison walls. We spoke to Valdez about many of the issues brought up in the film, in addition to asking for some updates about Cindy and her daughters. Read our interview below, and be sure to stream this incredibly powerful documentary today.  

The experience of making this film must have been both cathartic and exhausting. Documenting all of the ups and downs was a way of coping, and you explicitly say that in the film. This was such deeply personal subject matter—what topics or passion points do you hope to cover in your future work?

The making of this film has been a mix of a lot of things. Cathartic to some extent, and certainly exhausting. It was a coping mechanism in the sense that it allowed me to engage in what was happening in a way that I felt was constructive. I needed to figure out how to make something good out of it.

The future of my work is a bit unclear at this point. I have worked in a lot of different genres over the course of figuring out not only how to make films, but also what my voice is. For as long as I can remember all I ever wanted was to have a voice. It started with the urge to see people like me in my favorite shows and movies. If I had my way it wouldn’t be limited to a single genre or format. I simply want to continue to create.

The film serves as a document of your family’s journey, but one of the things we come away with is just how common this kind of narrative is in this country. What’s the feedback you’ve received thus far on the film? Has the film served to connect you with other folks who have dealt with similar injustices?

This is certainly a common narrative in our country. We are using our prison system as a catch all for anyone who makes a mistake, big or small. Overall the feedback on the film has been positive, but there are people who feel like I should have gone farther into my sister’s crimes. My sister made bad choices. She made bad choices in who she maintained relationships with, and made bad choices during those relationships. I will never say that she was innocent, and neither would she. I chose not to go into her case because it’s not what the film is about.

The film is about the people left behind, and the long-lasting ramifications of these sentences. Since the film’s release there’s been an outpouring of support from those who can relate all too well. Those who are still missing their loved ones serving long sentences. I never thought or even hoped that this film would be something that changed the way we approached sentencing. No one person or film or anything can do that. I hoped it would add to the overall conversation, and be a tool for those that have been fighting this fight for so long. I’m extremely proud and humbled that this seems to be the case.

Have your nieces watched the film? If so, what was their reaction to seeing themselves on screen? They’re some really special young ladies.

Yes, the girls have watched the film. I showed it to Cindy and the girls first. I think it was a little tough for them to see it initially, but they said they were proud of it. As much as it has been amazing to watch the film grow with audiences, it has also been humbling to watch them grow with them. They are VERY special girls. They are the true stars of this film.

In the current political climate, what changes to policy are you still hopeful will happen as the result of highlighting your sister’s story?

In my heart, I want to believe that the political climate shouldn’t matter. People keep telling me that it’s unfortunate that the film came out during these times. I don’t think there is a bad time to want to make change. If we wait for the perfect timing change will never happen.

My greatest hope is that we are able to shift the way we handle sentencing. I think it should be individualized and treated on a case by case basis. I think that this is the only way to ensure that we have a sentencing structure that is not only fair and just to the inmate, but also the communities and tax payers. This starts with giving judge’s discretion, and taking profit out of the prison system.

How is Cindy doing?

Overall I think Cindy is doing well. She’s one of the fortunate ones that has been given a second chance through clemency. Coming home isn’t easy for anyone, but she’s taking it in stride and trying to look forward as much as possible. I’m very proud of her and the rest of the family.