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A New Documentary Paints an Intimate Portrait of Chesa Boudin’s Family

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Young Chesa with his father, David Boudin, as seen in the documentary 'Beyond Bars.' (Courtesy of the filmmaker)

On the campaign trail and news reports, Chesa Boudin has long been open about his family history — growing up with parents who were incarcerated for decades, and how the experience inspired him to become a public defender and eventually run for San Francisco district attorney.

Most of us know the story of Boudin’s meteoric star rise. In 2019, at a moment when progressive-minded candidates were running for district attorney’s offices across the country, he won election. He ran on a platform focused on criminal justice reforms with the goal of reducing mass incarceration. Then, just a few days after being sworn into office, he faced a million-dollar recall effort, which ultimately succeeded. Boudin only served for two years.

“We definitely made some mistakes and I learned an awful lot during my time in office,” Boudin told KQED. “There are no two things we could have done differently that would have prevented what happened.”

This political moment is revisited in the new documentary Beyond Bars: It’s a Movement, Not a Moment, which premieres Wednesday, Oct. 25 at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library. Directed by Robert Greenwald, the film puts in parallel Boudin’s political and personal life, featuring on-the-record interviews with his parents and adoptive parents for the first time.

Chesa Boudin is seen at his inauguration in 2020 in a still from the new documentary ‘Beyond Bars.’ (Courtesy of the filmmaker)

“This film is really about the history of racism and mass incarceration in this country. And it’s that same history that led in a circuitous way to my parents’ incarceration — to my own experience with jails and prisons since before I can remember,” Boudin said.

Boudin talked more about the film with KQED’s Brian Watt. Their conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Brian Watt: Did the idea for this documentary come from you? Or did someone approach you?

Chesa Boudin: The director of the film reached out to me through my team when I was still serving as San Francisco’s district attorney, and they proposed the documentary. We had a number of similar documentary film crews reach out and ask to work with us, to essentially be embedded in the office and ultimately embedded in my family in many ways.

You have been open throughout your public life about your family history. When you were a toddler, your parents were arrested and went on to spend decades in prison. In this documentary, we hear from them, as well as your adoptive parents. What was going through your mind as you heard them share their story?

I was in the room for some of the interviews that made their way into this film. Watching my parents talk about raising me from the distance that incarceration created. Watching them talk about the transition into a new family after I was adopted. Watching them talk about their regret and remorse for the harm they caused not only to me, but also to the families that lost loved ones in ways that are totally irreparable, was a really emotional experience for me.

a polaroid of a small kid with two parents in prison uniforms labeled 'Chesa visits mommy and daddy in jail'
A photograph of young Chesa Boudin visiting his parents in prison. (Courtesy of the filmmakers)

Was there an emotional place – maybe one you had resisted going for a lot of your life – that you had to go that you weren’t expecting as you sat down to discuss your own personal part of this for the documentary?

The documentary was filmed and recorded over the course of multiple years, so we did a whole series of different interviews. Some of them were profoundly emotional for me, particularly as I lost my mother to a seven-year battle with cancer.

During the filming of this documentary, she died — on May 1, just almost exactly a month before my recall from office. The director of the film and his team were doing interviews with her almost right up until the week of her death. Seeing her decline, and getting to watch and listen to the interview she did as part of this project, and then see them integrated into the final film, has been a really intensely emotional experience.

As you are dealing with the recall effort, in the documentary, we see difficult circumstances in your family: the loss of your mother to cancer and the release of your father from prison in New York after decades inside. What was going through your mind?

What happened with the recall was profoundly dishonest and unfair. It was unfair to me, but more importantly, was unfair to the voters and the people of San Francisco who elected me and who did not get to choose the person who replaced me. And to have all that happen while my mother was dying, while I was trying to welcome my father home and help him with the intensely challenging transition after 40 years of incarceration — while I was learning to be a father for a newborn son — couldn’t have been more difficult. Yet I am always reminded of how lucky I am in so many ways, and of the fact that when life throws obstacles in our path, it’s in those moments that we learn what we’re capable of.

Kathy Boudin is seen in a still from ‘Beyond Bars.’ (Courtesy of the filmmaker)

As much as the documentary is your story, it’s also a love letter to your mom in a way. What would she make of this next phase of your life beyond the district attorney’s office?

My mom was always and would always be unwavering in her support, in her love and in her pride and in what I chose to do with my life, with my family. I know most of all she’d be absolutely thrilled to be a grandmother. It was one of the most important things to her in her final months. My mom, after she came home from prison, after her 22 years of incarceration, after she earned a Ph.D. from Columbia, she founded the Center for Justice at Columbia University School of Social Work.

And so in many ways, my work and this next chapter of my professional life is a parallel to what my mother did with the last 15 or so years of her life. And I know that we would find ways to collaborate professionally. And in fact, I’m continuing to work with people at the center at Columbia University that she founded and co-directed for so many years.

‘Beyond Bars: It’s a Movement, Not a Moment’ premieres Wednesday, Oct. 25 at a sold-out screening at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library. The film will also screen in Los Angeles in December. The film is expected to be available for streaming in January.

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