By Juan Haines
An hour-long documentary about an ex-offender who spent nearly two decades behind bars and then sought forgive-ness through non-violence advocacy made its premiere for an audience of nearly 100 prisoners, mostly Asian and Pacific Islanders.
“Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story” debuted at San Quentin State Prison on Feb. 29.
The documentary, five years in the making, was scheduled to make its debut to the free world on March 11 to a sold-out audience in Oakland.
At the age of 16, Eddy Zheng received a life sentence after confessing to a home invasion robbery.
The family Zheng criminal-ized consisted of two children, a mother and father. The father, now in his ‘90s, lives in Chinatown.
“The kids have always opposed my release and stay in this country,” Zheng said. “I always wanted to make amends.”
The film opens with Zheng standing inside a San Quentin prison cell.
Zheng is filmed reading detailed accounts of a confession he says he does not remember.
“I had an urge to get on my knees and ask for forgiveness,” Zheng said. He said his shame kept him from doing so.
“The victims did nothing wrong, but they will have sufferred for the rest of their lives for what I did,” Zheng told the audience after the film.
“What hurt most is that we couldn’t feel safe in our own home,” said one victim, who was a child at the time Zheng committed the home invasion robbery.
Zheng explained his family’s shame because of his crime and incarceration.
“It was disgrace,” Zheng’s mother said. She said she couldn’t tell Zheng’s grandfather about his grandson’s incarceration because of shame. “No way!” She exclaimed.
Zheng said that he wants to validate the words and feelings of the victims of his crime.
“I don’t know when the opportunity will come for me to help my victims heal,” Zheng said. “It may sound vain, but if I live a productive life, then maybe making a difference in preventing violence could help them heal.”
Zheng wrote an apology letter to seek forgiveness from his crime victims’ family.
“I had to wait for the right time,” he said. “I did not want to open old wounds.”
“For my family’s sake, please make him make a life anywhere but here,” one of the victims said in the documentary.
After being denied parole 10 times, Zheng said that he believed that all his hopes and dreams were shattered, “We believe that they were lies,” he said. “Even if you think your dreams and hopes are lies, don’t give up. Hope is what keeps us going. Even when you only see rejection, don’t give up.”
Zheng was given a release date after his 12th time before the parole board after spending 19 years incarcerated; however, facing deportation, he spent two years in an immigration detention facility. After winning his case in federal court, his mother told him that he’d better be a good son from now on and give her a “chubby grandson.”
Scenes were shown of Zheng’s wedding, and the chapel audience erupted in applause.
“If we have that breath, there is hope,” Zheng said. “I always tell youngsters on the streets, if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.”
Last June, Zheng received an 18-month grant to advocate against the school-to-prison pipeline, organize grass roots efforts against mass incarceration, and inform policy makers on the impact incarceration has on inmates.
Zheng said the funding allows him to travel around the country to talk about these issues.
The funding also allows Zheng to work on reentry and jobs programs for returning citizens and to build support networks.
“The film humanizes us,” Zheng said. “I cannot go back in time, but I can heal and help other people deal with inter-generational trauma.”
Zheng was honored at San Francisco City Hall for “Single-handedly bringing the African-American and Asian communities together.”
“I am who I am today, because the community gave me a second chance,” Zheng said in the documentary. “The day I stop struggling, I stop breathing.”
On Easter Sunday, 2015, Zheng received a full pardon from Gov. Jerry Brown.