Sundance Impressions: Snow and “The Sentence”

The threat (or promise, depending on your outlook) of snow delivered today in full force. So much so that I was taken off guard and missed an early screening due to basically being buried in a snow drift. I was born and raised in the midwest, and I started driving at age 16 with a very light front wheel drive vehicle in the dead of winter in a rural area. But it turns out once you live in LA for like, a minute, your natural instincts begin to disappear and you struggle to remain upright.

I was really proud of my snow boots though. Obviously I am not A Winter Sports Person (TM) so I didn’t own boots until last week. Breaking them in here was a risk and it seems to have paid off.

The Egyptian Theater

I read a few articles about preparing to come to Park City, but none of them really prepared me for the extent to which I would be both hot and cold simultaneously all the time. I am thankful I packed a lens cloth in my winter coat pocket to deal with the fogged lenses at every turn. But despite all my whining, it really is nice to play in some snow and be among the film people in such a nice city. (Everyone who lives here and volunteers at the festival is so.nice.)

Main Street

I made a detour off Main Street to spend some time having brunch with Endcrawl at midday. Their service basically makes making end credits easy. I’m a really big fan of the entire idea of Endcrawl, in part because I’ve made credits that suck, and in part because it’s so accessible that indie filmmakers can and do use it. A third of the features in Sundance this year used Endcrawl, which is bananas. I talked to John “Pliny” Eremic briefly over mimosas and scones and asked him: why are end credits so damn hard?

He told me this: “You’re juggling hundreds, sometimes thousands of names. There are a lot of politics involved. There are endless revisions. There’s behind the scenes wrangling with who’s in and who’s out and fixing all the typos and all that. The process for that used to be email chains and it was very 1997. You only want to scroll at certain speeds that don’t jitter, judder, stutter, shimmer, shake — whatever you want to call it. That makes the runtime difficult.”

Yeah, that was also my experience.

Cocktails with Endcrawl

Later on, after tea with a DP (sharing that conversation soon) and coffee with an editor (that one too), I was thinking about the thing I realized makes Sundance really special for me. It isn’t just going to see a lot of movies, or going to see new movies. It’s experiencing movies alongside the filmmakers that made them, and celebrating that along with them. If you’ve ever made a short or a feature or any other expression of creativity and debuted it to a crowd of strangers in a theater or room of any size, you know the nervous excitement just before your art is unveiled. At Sundance, that feeling is on steroids.

Atticus Tea House

Which leads me to The Sentence.

The film is drawn from hundreds of hours of footage shot by director Rudy Valdez, as he tells the story of the incarceration of his sister Cindy and the aftermath of her 15 year sentence for conspiracy charges related to drug crimes her boyfriend committed before he was murdered. Cindy wasn’t involved in drugs. She made some poor decisions with who she spent time with, and she didn’t disclose her boyfriend’s crimes to the police at any point. But it’s clear in the film she is nothing but a kind person who wants to take care of her family.

And originally, the state agreed and threw out the case. But six years later, just six months before the statute of limitations would run out, she was convicted of her boyfriend’s crimes and given the mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years just months after giving birth to her third daughter. From that point, Rudy copes with his sister’s situation, and turns from bystander to director to activist behind the camera over the course of nine years of her story.

From the opening scene of the film, the stakes are made clear: Cindy is taken from her family and all the little moments a young mom gets with her babies — first days of school, funny little games, silly faces, fighting — is taken away from her. The through line of the film is in the heart of her daughters on screen, being interviewed by Rudy as they play in their rooms or sit on their beds. Children are honest, and their perspectives are gut-wrenching. Even more gut-wrenchingly, we’re placed in the shoes of Cindy as we watch the three girls grow up on camera. The oldest, Autumn, begins the film is an adorable 5 year old. By the end she’s a teenager, and the visual of her growing face and the subtle deepening of her voice is heartbreaking.

Rudy describes himself as feeling he’s taken the “coward’s way out”, which I think is a sentiment to which a lot of us who cope with difficulties by documenting our lives in full can relate. But Rudy is the driving force of trying to change his sister’s fate, staying the course as a family is ripped apart by unchanging mandatory minimums and “the girlfriend problem”. And we learn Cindy is far from alone in her struggles as a mom ripped away from a healthy, productive family.

The film is intimate, often filling the frame with the subjects’ faces. Personal moments play out but never exploit. Everyone is just so earnest, trying their best. And Cindy never stops trying to keep the family together, consoling her siblings and parents and children at times over the phone, reminding them that she’s okay, interrupted periodically by an automated voice interjecting that the call is coming from a federal prison.

It was challenging and well-edited, an important story that has real world implications not just for Cindy and her family, but for many thousands of other families. It was a personal film, and I was glad to share the experience of seeing it on the big screen with Rudy.

But then the film ended, and the entire family I had just lived 9 years with over 90 minutes emerged from the audience and stood in front of us.

The subjects and crew from The Sentence

Seeing a narrative feature followed by a Q&A with the cast and crew is a special experience. Experiencing such a vulnerable story with the subjects themselves is on another level.

And that’s really what solidified in my head what makes Sundance worth doing as a film lover.