CAAM-funded film “Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story” screens at San Quentin

Director Ben Wang reflects on screening the CAAMFest 2016 documentary inside prison.

Although 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.

Community members outside the San Quentin gates before the screening.
Community members outside the San Quentin gates before the screening.

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.

—Ben Wang


Eddy Zheng with Ben Wang at San Quentin.
Eddy Zheng with Ben Wang at San Quentin.


I first met Eddy Zheng in 2003. I was studying Asian American Studies at UC Davis, and he was nearing his 18th year of incarceration. Eddy had recently spent 11 months in solitary confinement as a result of campaigning for Ethnic Studies to be incorporated into the prison college curriculum at San Quentin State Prison. I was struck by his tenacious commitment to educational and cultural empowerment, despite arduous circumstances such as solitary confinement, parole denials, and immigration detention. His motto, “breathin’,” expresses his philosophy of letting go of the past and focusing on the present moment—appreciating each breath. In making this film, I have gained more insight into Eddy’s philosophies, his crime and its lasting impact, his prison experience during this era of mass incarceration, and his struggles to reconcile with his family and victims. Thirteen years after I first met Eddy in a crowded prison visiting room, I am thrilled to premiere BREATHIN’: THE EDDY ZHENG STORY in 2016.


Ben Wang’s previous documentary films include AOKI (Co-Director, 2009 feature documentary film, which screened at SF Int’l Asian American Film Festival, Black Panther Party Film Festival, Chicago Asian American Showcase, LA Asian Pacific Film Festival, DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival, Vancouver Asian Film Festival, and Boston Asian American Film Festival) and MAMORI (Director, 2013 short documentary film that screened at CAAMFest). Wang also co-edited “Other: an API Prisoners’ Anthology,” the first anthology of writings and artwork featuring API prisoners.


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Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story

Alamo Drafthouse

March 11, 2016 6:30 pm

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New Parkway Theater

March 19, 2016 8:10 pm At Rush


New Parkway Theater

March 19, 2016 12:30 pm

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