May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month – a celebration of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States. A rather broad term, Asian/Pacific encompasses all of the Asian continent and the Pacific islands. This month, AMERICA REFRAMED UNFILTERED is pleased to offer insightful essays by our featured filmmakers that explore identity and beyond, all marked with revelatory observations.
Films tend to take on a life of their own — creating a whirlwind of experiences, emotions, and memories. Here are three moments that stuck out to Ben Wang as he reflected on the journey of making Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story.
I worked on Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story for over five years, but the story of the making of this film began almost ten years before we started shooting.
I met Eddy Zheng in 2003 — I was an Asian American Studies major at UC Davis, and he was nearing his 18th year of incarceration. I was drawn to Eddy by his attempts to change the prison system from within, which I learned about through the legendary activist, Yuri Kochiyama, and the Asian Prisoner Support Committee. 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. Since the Davis campus was close to where Eddy was, I offered my support.
We decided to start a small visiting program where college students would meet regularly with Eddy and his friends — other Asian Americans who had been in prison for 5, 10, 20+ years. Some of the people we visited had been disowned from their families and hadn’t had a visit in over a decade. I didn’t know it at the time, but these issues of cultural shame, stigma, and isolation would become a major theme in Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story. During the prison visits, I learned more about issues of mass incarceration, intergenerational trauma, and immigrant/refugee history than I had in any college classroom. If it wasn’t for working on this visiting program with Eddy, it’s likely that Breathin’ never would have been made.
(Not) Finishing the Film
When I started making Breathin’ in 2011, I naively thought that I could finish it in one year, two years max. I quit my day job to focus on the film. Four years into the making of Breathin’, we had run out of money, but we had what I thought was a finished product. I began submitting the film to film festivals and gearing up for a possible premiere in the Bay Area. However, when I showed the film to a couple of trusted advisors, they told me that it was in a good place and had made significant progress — but was not done. I was crushed. The time, money, and pressure to finish had taken a toll on my psyche. Our film budget was empty. Editing scenes played on a loop inside my brain. However, it was this honest feedback that was necessary to complete the film. So we pushed on…Miraculously, an anonymous angel donor came through and funded our final editing stage, a process cultivated by a key supporter/advisor. I am very grateful that we had the opportunity to spend an additional year on editing, test screenings and feedback opportunities, and fine-tuning. During the final year, we also improved a critical scene with animation effects — featuring artwork from Hyung-Rae Tarselli, a lifer who is incarcerated in Pennsylvania and has spent years in solitary confinement.
“Solitary Confinement” by Hyung-Rae Tarselli, for Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story.
Premiering the Film at San Quentin
On February 29, 2016, the Asian Prisoner Support Committee and I organized the premiere screening of Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story at San Quentin State Prison. It was the first documentary film screening about an Asian American subject to be held at the prison. The screening was hosted by the San Quentin ROOTS (Restoring Our Original True Selves) program, a weekly class modeled after an Asian American Studies/Ethnic Studies curriculum that Eddy and I helped cofound. ROOTS is one of the few programs in the nation that addresses the specific experiences of Asian American and Pacific Islander prisoners through cultural empowerment, leadership development, and community-building activities.
About 75 incarcerated individuals joined us for the early afternoon screening. The crowd was a diverse mix of ethnicities with roots from places such as China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, the Philippines, Hawaii, Samoa, Nicaragua, Mexico, and parts of Africa. Many of the audience members had stories that mirrored Eddy’s — juveniles charged as adults, families who kept their incarceration a secret, people who will face deportation, and lifers who had been denied parole countless times.
A projector displayed the movie onto a small screen at the front of the prison chapel, with rows of men sitting in the pews. The audience was enthusiastic — laughing, nodding, and cheering throughout the screening. The loudest cheers came when Lee, Kam, and Danny (lifers in the ROOTS program) were featured in 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. The audience members expressed how strongly they could identify with Eddy and how much they appreciated his struggle to change, grow, and evolve as a person. I couldn’t help but think that, in some ways, Eddy is very unique. But on the other hand, I also believe that there are many more “Eddy’s” out there — in prisons, in immigration detention facilities, and on planes headed for deportation. If more people were given the support, resources, and opportunities that Eddy fought for, they too could thrive as leaders, artists, and valued community members. As this nation continues to grapple with issues of mass incarceration, deportation, and criminalization of “the other,” I believe it is imperative to uplift more stories of the many “Eddy’s” still out there.
I must also thank our entire team for their tremendous talent and tireless effort throughout the journey: Producer Christine Kwon, Executive Producer Deann Borshay Liem, Editor Ken Schneider, Editorial Consultant Tina Nguyen, Director of Photography R.J. Lozada, Composer Scott Jung, Anne Rogers, our advisors, and all our generous funders and donors.
I hope you enjoy the film!
Eddy and Ben at the premiere of Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story at San Quentin, February 29, 2016.
Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story by Ben Wang will have its U.S. television premiere Tuesday, May 23, 2017 at 8 p.m. on WORLD Channel (check local listings), as part of the award-winning documentary series AMERICA REFRAMED. The film will be available and free to view online for audiences across the U.S. at www.americareframed.org from May 24 to August 22.