The Doc Days Festival Is Here: Interview with THE SENTENCE Filmmaker Rudy Valdez

AFS’ inaugural documentary film festival Doc Days starts tonight, Thursday, May 10 at the AFS Cinema. Doc Days is a long weekend festival of brand-new documentary films with visiting filmmakers from the US and abroad. In addition to screening our favorite new documentaries from the festival circuit, the weekend will include events, parties, discussions, and moderated Q&As by Austin’s documentary film community.


You can see the whole Doc Days schedule here.


Below, the festival’s co-programmer Todd Savage brings us this in-depth interview with filmmaker Rudy Valdez, about his intensely moving and personal film THE SENTENCE.

THE SENTENCE screens during Doc Days on Saturday, May 12 at 4:30pm. Valdez will be in attendance for at Q&A after the film.
Rudy Valdez was not a filmmaker when he picked up a camera after his sister was served with a 15-year prison sentence. His goal at the time was to document the childhood of his young nieces. A decade later, his film THE SENTENCE (an Audience Award winner at Sundance) explores the hot-button political issue of mandatory minimum sentencing on the most intimate and personal plane possible. We talked with Valdez about the film and his approach as both a filmmaker and a family member.

What were your goals for the film?
This film didn’t start out being a documentary film. It started off me just wanting to try to capture the lives of my nieces for my sister. Photos are wonderful and the phone calls she was able to make home were great for her, but I just wanted her to be able to see her daughters live, watch them run and play and yell and scream. When she came home, I wanted to be able to put a super cut together and her to be able to watch her kids grow up.

When did you make the shift to making a film?
I can pinpoint the exact moment when I became a documentary filmmaker. There’s a scene at the very beginning where I went back to capture my sister’s oldest daughter Autumn’s first dance recital. I knew Cindy wanted nothing more than to be there and watch it, and I knew I had to be there to capture it. Completely unprovoked and unplanned, my sister called while [Autumn) was getting ready. My sister was saying how much she wanted to be there, and all of a sudden she says to my niece: ‘When you go to dance, I’m going to lay down on my bed, and I’m going to close my eyes and think about you.’ That was the moment I realized that was there something special here, there was a story that was completely untold, that people don’t realize when they send people away for 15, 20, 30, 40 years, life, that there are people left behind. And as painful as it was for my sister to sit back and imagine what the dance was like, it was just as heart-wrenching that Autumn had to imagine what it would be like for her mom to watch. I became a filmmaker on one hand so that I could tell my story. I wanted nothing more than to be as good as I could possibly could be so that I could make my film as strong as it could be. I am learning throughout the film and you can see it. It was a journey in a lot of ways. It was a journey for my sister, it was a journey for the family left behind, it was a journey in the fight for justice, it was the journey of somebody learning trying and figuring out how to tell a story.

How did you communicate to your family what you were doing?
The most important thing when you’re making a documentary, especially an intimate personal documentary, verité style, is gaining the trust of your subjects and the people you’re filming. I had that from the very beginning. They trusted me. They knew why I was doing it. Once I decided it was going to be a documentary, I made it very clear to them what my intentions were. It was always for the greater good. It was a terrible thing that happened; it’s only going to be a tragedy if we allow it to be. If something good comes of it, then all of this wasn’t wasted. That didn’t make it any easier for my family to be vulnerable and honest in front of the camera for me, but it allowed them to know that what I was doing. Everyone really bought into it and believed in that, and so they were able to let their guard down and just let me film everything.

You addressed this in the film but can you talk more about how was it being behind the camera? Did that role change your participation in what was going on with your family?
Yes, that was kind of a sacrifice and a coping mechanism for me. Part of holding the camera was allowing myself to separate. Nobody wants to see his father cry, let alone record it. In the back of my mind I knew this is for the greater good. That didn’t make it any easier to watch my father cry, but one part of my brain is feeling for my father and wanting to hug him and tell him everything was going to be okay. The other part of my brain was saying, ‘Am I framed up? Am I focused? Do I have enough battery for this scene? Where is this scene going?’ It allowed me to partition in a certain way and allowed me to really cover myself from some of the emotion. I still had that emotion but it was delayed—I would think about it at night. I was constantly thinking about if I was doing the right thing, if I was doing my family justice by capturing moments. If for some reason I never end up making a documentary with this footage, am I doing myself a disservice by not being present during these times for my family? It was a constant struggle. I never had a break from it.

Your nieces were so natural in front of the camera, but when they turned the camera on you, you seemed surprisingly uncomfortable.
I think it was because I was Uncle Rudy. They trusted me, and it was just second nature. I oftentimes gave them the camera and let them run around so they were very comfortable with it. As a professional, I ask people to be open and honest and vulnerable in front of me, and it dawned on me right there in front of the camera that I had to force myself to do that. I’m asking my family, I’m asking my parents, my nieces, everyone to be open and honest with me in front of the camera, and I never asked that of myself. So I looked to the camera and wanted to convey what I was feeling and how I was coping with this whole thing. Because it was truly—I can’t even begin to tell you—this was something that weighed on me for 10 years. And so that was where that scene came from and where that talking to the camera came from. I actually kept that from my editor for a long time, on purpose. I didn’t want to be a main character in this film, I didn’t want it to be about me or my fight. I wanted the film to be the girls and the strength of the family. I’m not completely dismissing the fact that when they’re talking to the camera they’re talking to a family member. I needed it to be clear.

The story seemed almost universal, like this could happen to any family and how would I have dealt with it.
I’m so happy that you said that, because that is exactly why I made it the way I did. It wasn’t to show you that we’re some super human family. We’re not. This is a family that believes in love and believes in hope. I want you to see your father in this film. I want you to see yourself in this film. We’re not doing anything extraordinary. We just believed in each other. That’s it.

How did she react to the film? Has she seen a lot of the other footage?
She only saw the film right before Sundance. It was very, very difficult for her to watch the film—just watching the girls grow up in 84 minutes. She didn’t even understand what the film was about because she was just so caught up in seeing them, and seeing them grow up. She’s seen it now about 10 times at festivals and it was about fourth or fifth time when she was finally like, ‘Rudy this is an amazing film.’ I’m still working on the supercut of everything. I’m trying to not be an artist with it. I’m trying to be like, ‘Here are the girls.’ It’s something that’s just for her.

Join Valdez at THE SENTENCE during Doc Days on Saturday, May 12 at 4:30pm.

See the Doc Days trailer here:

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