S. Leo Chiang Goes to Jail (with Community Cinema)

Posted on June 8, 2010

Last month filmmaker S. Leo Chiang participated in a discussion after his picture, A Village Called Versailles, played before for an audience of inmates at the San Bruno County Jail in the San Francisco Bay Area. Chiang offered his account of what was an unlikely setting for a film festival… 

When ITVS emailed me about showing A Village Called Versailles, In, of all places, a jail as a part of Community Cinema screenings, I was taken aback at first, and then I was excited. I had never been inside a jail, and I wasn’t about to pass up the chance. I am, after all, a documentary filmmaker with innate anthropological curiosities. I set out to the San Bruno County Jail #5, which is a part of the San Francisco County Jail system. My ITVS rep and I clear up confusions about our security clearances, pass through many remotely operated thick, metal, sliding doors, and walk down long, non-descript hallways.

I see guards and rooms full of inmates in bright orange jumpsuits. So far, the experience looks a lot like a scene out of Oz on HBO. We are here to present the film to students in classrooms of a pioneer Charter high school inside the San Francisco County jails, the Five Keys Charter School. The inmates take classes from inside the jail with the aim of getting their high school diplomas. I enter the classroom and am nervous. The students had seen my film the day prior, and I’m there to answer questions and discuss their reactions to the film. I wonder if anyone would even speak or, let alone, raise a hand to ask a question. Or, will they just be rowdy? Will the session disintegrate into chaos?

After the first question, I start to loosen up. The students are compelled by the images on the screen, and they want to share their thoughts. One Vietnamese American inmate speaks about the refugee experience that he and his family went through. Many other students obviously relate to what they saw on the screen, a marginalized community being treated unfairly by the powers that be. The discussion becomes livelier. The students alternate between asking questions: “What’s New Orleans like now all these years after Katrina?” And “Where did all of that garbage end up?” 

They offer up their opinions too: “I think the story is really touching, and you don’t have to be Vietnamese to appreciate it,” one inmate said. My ITVS colleague jumps in and asks about the backgrounds of certain students and where they are from. Richmond, Bayview, Hunter’s Point -- mostly cities and neighborhoods where polluting factories are built and garbage is dumped. I often tell folks that a main goal for me with this film is to empower people from underserved and underrepresented communities to speak up, to fight against injustices in their own neighborhoods. Here, I am facing an audience of all different ethnic backgrounds from these very neighborhoods. I am certain that some of them are in this very jail due to the obstacles presented in their neighborhoods, which they feel powerless against. This is the very audience that I want to influence. Driving away, I was thrilled that the response was far better than I expected. I don’t know how much the inmates took away from watching A Village Called Versailles

I can only hope that the film is able to modestly contribute to their outlook on life after incarceration. I read one student’s answer about what the film was trying to convey. He says, “even the smallest voice makes a sound and anyone can have an impact.” We can all take that to heart.


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