ADAMU CHAN WINS DIRECTOR DEBUT FOR ‘WHAT THESE WALLS WON’T HOLD
A formerly incarcerated documentary filmmaker, who honed his skills in San Quentin’s media center, has won an award from the oldest film festival in the nation.
Adamu Chan, director of the film “What These Walls Won’t hold,” received the Golden Gate Award for best mid-length documentary at the San Francisco International film festival this year.
The film was created during the Covid-19 pandemic and the backdrop for the film centers around the outbreak of Covid-19 at San Quentin. But Chan said this film isn’t about the pandemic.
“The main point of the film is really that our relationships can be transformational to us,” Chan said in an interview.
The film has been screened all over the country. Three April screenings sold out. He is still making his rounds and hopes to one day premiere inside the walls of San Quentin Prison.
“I want to screen it here,” he said. “This is my most important audience. I’m using skills, to build my career, I learned from inside San Quentin. I want to show others inside what can be done.”
During his time at SQ, Chan joined a media center program called First Watch which helped him developed the skills for documentary filmmaking.
He traveled around the prison with film crews to film short clips about prison life. These clips were broadcast at prisons throughout the state — First Watch has since become Forward This Productions.
Chan spent 13 years in California’s prison system. He served the last two years of his sentence at San Quentin. He was fortunate enough to be moved during the outbreak from West Block housing to the H-Unit dorm, which was unaffected by Covid-19 at the time.
Chan stayed connected to friends and family by using the prison phone and writing letters.
“What These Walls Won’t Hold” is a film about how people come together and respond during a crisis.
The film follows Chan’s relationship with his best friend, Isa Borgeson, formerly-incarcerated person Lonnie Morris, and Rahsaan Thomas, the former co-host of SQ’s Earhustle, who paroled earlier this year.
Chan was eventually released and became a 2022 Mellon Artist Fellow at Stanford’s center for the Comparative Study in Race and Ethnicity. The fellowship provides funds for a year of filmmaking projects. This opportunity helped him finish the film.
Chan’s goal is now to make films that open up avenues for others who are impacted by incarceration. He hopes system-impacted people can tell their own stories in a way that feels true to them, sharing their own experiences rather in a way that is not shaped by the state or the biases of outside media.
“I feel like all people are storytellers to some degree, and I think in the communities that I grew up in, storytelling was always a huge component in the way that people share knowledge and also connect with each other,” Chan said. “For me, coming to terms with this identity that I carried, as a currently incarcerated person or formerly incarcerated person, and within the context of that community, systematically being silenced and kind of not heard, I think it made me want to develop those skills.”
Chan just finished a short documentary with Independent Lens called “Bridge Builders.” He has also been working on other material with PBS.
He hopes that this film will be made available for screening at SQ by the Fall of 2023.
“My goal is for distribution to be acquired by PBS and to have a national broadcast so people across the USA can watch this film. It isn’t about money but impact.”