Locarno Film Festival and Extended Time


Accelerated time leaves little room for reflection. SMS and WhatApp keep us tuned in 24/7.  We are never behind or ahead; we are in the precise moment. Even international time zones have lost their meaning

The Locarno film festival offered a different vision of time. While being on vacation was the basis of changing rhythm, one film and one incident brought into focus how meaningful extended time can be.
Rudy Valdez, a short, modest Mexican-American, presented a fabulous work of art and passion. His sister was arrested in the United States for her “participation” in the drug activities of her husband. Six years after he had been shot, six years after some of his accomplices had gone to jail, she was awakened one morning by officers and taken to jail.
The sister (Cindy) had changed her life after the shooting of her husband. Remarried with three charming daughters, she had steady work and was a devoted mother, wife and member of the community.
Unfortunately, the accomplices had squealed on her. Hoping to reduce their sentences, they accused her of active participation in the drug dealing which she denied. She admitted to having witnessed much of what was going on and having made no effort to stop or report the illegal activities. She was found guilty, risking 89 years in prison, with 15 years minimum.
A recent United States law has taken away the possibility for a judge to modify a sentence under specific circumstances. Mandatory sentences are based on the crime committed, with no leeway to sentence below the minimum because of extenuating circumstances. Cindy was sentenced to 15 years. The fact that she had changed her life, that she had three children – the youngest was six weeks old – had no influence on the judge’s decision. The law required at least the minimum sentence.
Cindy’s brother, a teacher in New York City and aspiring film maker, decided to bear witness by filming the family Cindy left behind. For nine years, Rudy Valdez filmed and recorded the lives of all involved.
The Sentence is a gripping movie. The children talk poignantly about their mother and being physically estranged from her. (In the beginning, they were able to visit her every six weeks, but Cindy was moved farther away, and subsequently they would see her once a year.) The devoted new husband also explains his complex feelings about raising the girls and being separated from his wife.
The movie is both a witness to what the family went through as well as an activist’s presentation of the trauma experienced by families torn apart by unreasonable prison sentences. (Remember the three strikes and you’re-out-law concerning those found guilty of even three small crimes who are given life sentences.)
The ending has Cindy pardoned – 1,600 were pardoned by President Obama out of 36,000 requests – and the family was reunited. The family solidarity throughout the ordeal is impressive, but the long-term effects are unknown. The couple is divorced, the children are receiving counselling.
Rudy Valdez spent over nine years filming. He began so his sister could follow how the girls were growing up. He became an activist profiling the consequences of family separation because of unreasonable prison sentences. After Cindy’s release, Valdez has lobbied in Washington and wherever invited to show the film and tell his sister’s story.
There were very few dry eyes in the theatre at the end of the showing. Standing ovation. Applause ringing down. Even Valdez had tears in his eyes.
The film’s sense of time is artfully constructed. The minutes between Cindy’s sitting in the car in the driveway of the home while her brother prepares the family for the surprise and her entering is riveting.  All we had seen before had built up to that moment. Valdez’s nine years of filming. Our eighty-five minutes of sharing the experience.
There was nothing precipitated about the film’s emotions. No SMS or WhatsApp moment.
The Sentence was not the only extended time event at the Locarno festival worth recounting. Before each evening feature presentation in the Piazza Grande a camera scanned the audience. People smiled and waved while wolfing down their pizzas as people do at similar moments during lulls in sports events in the United States. 
One evening the camera caught former Federal Councillor Ruth Dreifuss sitting in the audience.  The camera paused briefly (perhaps ten seconds) on her followed by enthusiastic claps of appreciation from many of the eight thousand in attendance. Ms. Dreifuss had not been in government for 16 years, yet she was spontaneously applauded. How many politicians would have merited the same reaction? And if remembered, fondly? Federal Councillor from 1993 to 2002, Ruth Dreifuss was instantly recognized and applauded for all she had done and continues to do. Another extended time moment, not an SMS or WhatsApp. A brief instance to reinforce the power of extended time and memory.
(After the showing of The Sentence, Ms. Dreifuss – a devoted activist today dealing with drug problems – went up to Valdez and introduced herself as “a former Swiss politician.” Not Federal Councillor, not former President of Switzerland. Perhaps this humility is one of the reasons she is so fondly remembered.)
A film that took nine years to make. A politician affectionately remembered 16 years after she left office. There is a sense of time longer than the immediate.

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