Robert Greenwald on His Upcoming Documentary Beyond Bars

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San Francisco’s district attorney, Chesa Boudin, has been making headlines for the past couple of months. Boudin has been the local DA since January of 2020, bringing a new wave of progressive policies to one of California’s biggest cities. Due to his highly liberal stances on issues like incarceration, as well as public opinion about where he came from — Boudin’s parents were convicted for being a part of the radical Weather Underground organization — a recall vote will be happening in the summer of 2022 to determine whether he will be remaining as the DA. Filmmaker Robert Greenwald, of Brave New Films, has spearheaded a new documentary about Boudin’s background and fight to get where he is today. MovieWeb sat down to discuss the upcoming documentary, Beyond Bars: A Son’s Fight for Justice, with Greenwald.

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Tracking Chesa Boudin’s Campaign and Life Story

MW: Beyond Bars looks like it is going to be an exciting documentary. How did this project get started initially, and why were you specifically drawn to this subject?

Robert Greenwald: One of my main jobs at Brave New Films, which is a nonprofit social justice film production/video company, is figuring out what we should do. Every time we plan to do one film, it literally means we’re not doing ten other films. So the decision-making process is really important. There’s a couple of things that guide us at Brave New Films. One of them is doing what is not being done, whether it is a subject matter. In this particular case, we were working on a film about the misdemeanor system and the prosecutors around the country who were making a difference in not criminalizing people for minor offenses. During that work, I came across the story of this progressive prosecutor in San Francisco who was not only saying he was going to do things differently, he actually was doing things differently. That interested me, then when I started reading about his life story, I thought this was really fascinating. This was someone impacted by a system of locking and punishing, and now he’s taking these extraordinary steps to take that childhood trauma and turn it around.


MW: How was Chesa’s story implemented into the actual documentary’s narrative?

Greenwald: It’s interesting that there’s two films in the story: the story of his campaign, his bringing together a team primarily of young women, and then the story of his upbringing, where he’s fourteen months old, and his parents are suddenly gone one day. We do tell both stories in the documentary, and working on it has been quite fascinating. In one way, it’s the story of incarceration, and in another, it’s the story of the 1960s and 1970s as well as the changes we’ve experienced in our country.

MW: How has this documentary’s subject distinguished itself from the previous work Brave New Films has done? Has it shown any overarching narratives?

Greenwald: The overarching connects deeply to Brave New Film’s reason for being: social justice, telling stories with narratives. One of the simple things we do is we put a face on policy, whether it’s the drone survivors from when I went to Pakistan, people abused by the NRA and had terrible losses, or voter suppression. In this case, the faces are both people who worked on Chesa’s campaigns, or impacted by his policies, and his parents. The themes around social justice, racism, and wars carry over very directly from the sixties and seventies to today, which are the themes we’ve covered in so many of our films [at Brave New Films].

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Breaking Free from Trauma to Make a Difference

MW: On Deadline, you said the ‘personal is always political’ for Chesa. Are there specific moments in the documentary that highlight this?

Greenwald: It’s more that his life experience—which he talks about it so well—about having to grow up and go through metal detectors to see his parents. Living with the incarceration system is within his DNA, being punished by it, and experiencing the ongoing and horrific racism in this system. Chesa didn’t read about it, but he saw it every day when he would visit his parents locked up.

MW: While making the documentary, what surprised you the most?

Greenwald: It’s fascinating about how we parents, the children of parents, are formed and impacted. Seeing it worked out [through Chesa’s parents and adoptive parents], how they dealt with the Vietnam War in the sixties, and how their child took all of that and ran for office in the most public of ways. I was surprised by the depth of the connections between the parenting, child, social justice, and a sense of patriotism.


MW: The recall decision is next month. Beyond Bars is coming out in the fall, after the decision will already be known. What’s your vision for the documentary’s impact?

Greenwald: The most important part of our films is not the making of them, but reaching the audience. I hope here people will understand through this very unique, interesting story the real power for change, for affecting people’s lives through the existing judicial system. You can elect people. There’s some amazing work going on, and I hope the film is a vehicle to help people understand that, particularly in a time when there is a significant amount of despair and alienation. To show whatever happens with the recall, there is a difference to be made and lives to be affected.

Beyond Bars is expected to release in the fall of 2022.


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