The Sentence, director Rudy Valdez makes clear right from the start, was not initially a documentary. Instead, it was just his attempt to record major events in the life of his three nieces while their mother served time in prison. The opening scene shows a young girl (Autumn, age 6) getting ready for a dance recital when a phone call from her mother almost has her break down in tears. Yet the family has to move on. Autumn has to go dance, and Rudy is there documenting it all, preserving it for when his sister gets out. As the New York City-based director put it when preparing to show his feature film at Sundance, his documentary isn’t about guilt or innocence but about the “real ramifications of sending away a mother, of sending away a sister, sending away a daughter, sending away a contributing member of society.”

With the feel of home movies — for truly that’s what most of these scenes are — The Sentence chronicles the years when his sister Cindy is away. Rudy’s camera is there when Cindy’s three girls are fighting over who gets to talk to mommy next. It’s there when they’re all about to go fishing with their father, a patient man who you can tell is overwhelmed by it all but committed to making it work. It’s there when he and his mother take the girls on a road trip to visit Cindy, who’s been transferred to a prison camp in Florida where they all enjoy the hotel pool. The small moments start to add up when it becomes clear that this is no short sentence. Six-year-old Autumn calculates that she’s likely going to be 12 at the earliest when her mother gets out. Except even that is a conservative estimate. For Cindy is serving a 15-year sentence.

The documentary is slow to give us all the details, forcing us instead to really feel the absence of the mother of these girls. Valdez opens his doc in 2008 but soon his title cards (and Cindy’s ever-growing girls) alert us that plenty of time has gone by. Months at first, later years. Here’s the short version: coming from a family of migrant farmers-turned-entrepreneurs and teachers, Cindy was hoping to become the first Valdez to go to college in the United States. In fact, she wanted to become a filmmaker.

‘The Sentence’ courtesy of NYLFF

A wrong choice as a young woman meant that when her drug-dealing boyfriend was killed, she was charged as a co-conspirator of his crimes —charges that were eventually dropped only to be tried for them years later after she’d built a family and a new life for herself. Per the law, she got a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years under what experts unofficially dub the “girlfriend problem”: that’s when girlfriends of criminals end up paying for crimes they were at most only witnesses to.

A kind of inverse Orange is the New Black, The Sentence asks us to follow not the person inside but those who are left waiting outside. “You’re locked up too,” Rudy’s mother tells him on camera. In fact, seeing the toll Cindy’s sentence takes on her larger family is hard to watch: this is as tearjerking a doc as you’re likely to find. It is not made for the faint of heart. Nor should it be, considering the tricky emotional and political landscape the film covers.

Valdez weaves Cindy’s legal battle to get out early, eventually asking for clemency from President Barack Obama himself (a fight both siblings know is near-impossible), with larger discussions about prison reform policy and the work of tireless advocates for people like his sister. What emerges in this HBO Documentary is a portrait not just of a family having to deal with an absent mother, an absent daughter, an absent wife, but of a system that forces itself to not think of convicted felons and inmates as anything other than quotas and numbers. Cindy is but an example of an epidemic that’s affecting thousands of lives in the United States every year.

The Sentence opens in select theaters on October 12 and premieres on HBO October 15.

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