Athough the official World Premiere of Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story is on March 11 at CAAMFest, the Asian Prisoner Support Committee and I organized a special preview screening on February 29—at San Quentin State Prison. The screening was hosted by the San Quentin ROOTS program, a weekly class modeled after an Asian American Studies/Ethnic Studies curriculum that documentary subject Eddy Zheng helped co-found. ROOTS is one of the few programs in the nation that addresses the specific experiences of Asian and Pacific Islander (API) prisoners through cultural empowerment and community building activities.
Given that a significant amount of footage was filmed at San Quentin and includes the voices of currently incarcerated individuals, screening the film at the prison was very important to me as a director, and the film’s crew. As far as I know, this is the first documentary film screening about an API subject to be held at San Quentin.
About 75 incarcerated individuals joined us for the early afternoon screening. The crowd was a diverse mix of ethnicities with roots from China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, the Philippines, Hawaii, Samoa, Nicaragua, Mexico, parts of Africa, and many more places. Many of the audience members have stories that mirror Eddy’s—juveniles charged as adults, families who hid their incarceration as a secret, and “lifers” who have been denied parole countless times.
Once inside the prison, a projector displayed the movie onto a small screen at the front of the chapel, with rows of men sitting in the pews. The audience was particularly enthusiastic—laughing, nodding, and cheering throughout the screening. The loudest cheers came when Lee, Kam, Thongsy—all API inmates still in San Quentin—and others were given their cameos on screen.
As the film ended, the audience gave us a standing ovation. Many of the men greeted me with smiles, handshakes, and heartfelt congratulations. As expected, the Q&A after the screening was unique and engaging. The audience members expressed how strongly they could identify with Eddy’s struggles and appreciated his journey to change, grow, and evolve as a person. One of the questions explored Eddy’s process of letting go of the prison mindset—and even being okay to wear blue jeans again after his release, as blue clothes are the prisoners’ daily uniforms. Another question reflected on the thin line between maintaining hope against all odds and “lying to yourself”—a dilemma that many of the audience members face on a daily basis, especially the “lifers.”
As Breathin’ premieres at CAAMFest and embarks on many more festival and community screenings, I am forever grateful for the thoughtful, engaging, and warm reception we received at San Quentin.
We hope to share more photos later – from inside the prison of the screening