Adamu Chan, Inside and Out: How a Formerly Incarcerated Filmmaker Breaks Through “Tyrannies of Silence”
This story is part of a series written by CCSRE's Public Writing Fellows.
Backlit by the glow of coastal hills and California palms, a man in blue stands center frame. He stares at you, asking “why billionaire presidential hopefuls never put their money where their mouth is?” As the man walks away from the camera shaking his head, the foreground comes into focus. A blacktop buzzes with other men in blue, each playing baseball, working out, or chatting. Now, you start to notice barbed wire cutting the pale sky. Now, you see prison walls corralling the blacktop. Adamu Chan welcomes his next interviewee, a fellow man in blue who’s come to speak about politics from inside San Quentin State Prison.
Chan is a documentary filmmaker, writer, community organizer and 2022 CCSRE Mellon Arts Fellow. He was incarcerated at San Quentin during the initial 2020 peak of the COVID-19 outbreak. His films focus on the stories and perspectives of folks who have been directly impacted by the prison system, distilling narrative through intimate frames punctuated by monologue. His camera is gentle; his form is straightforward. Yet Chan’s perspective on telling the stories of incarcerated people is anything but simple.
Born and raised in the Bay Area, Chan’s imperative is to “maintain a collective memory of the people, places, and experiences…that are under threat of disappearing” due to gentrification and racialized incarceration in places like Berkeley and Oakland. To that end, Audre Lorde’s essay on “tyrannies of silence” has served as a guidepost for Chan’s practice. “I remember reading [Lorde’s text] for the first time and crying. As an incarcerated person, you respect fear, you respect silence.” Isolation, distance from community, social stigmatization and the erasure of civil rights—all hallmarks of the prison system—serve as constant reminders that prisons are built to suppress incarcerated people from raising their voices. But Lorde’s call to overcome this fear through collective action struck a chord. “When we spoke together,” Chan reminisced, “the system started paying attention to us.”
At San Quentin, Chan seized the opportunity to gain technical media skills through FirstWatch, a program that provides camera equipment and production assistance to incarcerated people. San Quentin is known for its media center that produces multiple podcasts; the prison has its own newspaper. To these amenities, Chan is blunt: “It’s all PR for the system.” Yet, the filmmaker also recognized that FirstWatch was an opportunity to have a voice on the inside of San Quentin, where circumstances so often compelled silence. He chose to speak.
Throughout our time together, Chan continued to remind me that stories about social change are never devoid of the context in which they are born. This is no impediment to Chan, however, whose awareness of these complexities strengthens his commitments to the form. “I have this platform,” Chan stated, “and I can't look away from the realities of what the prison system actually is.” It is Chan’s lived experience that propels his work past the point of recitation and into the realm of radical imagination.
Chan’s current film, What These Walls Won’t Hold, is the project he is working on during the 2022 CCSRE Mellon Arts Fellowship year. It is a reflection of his community’s efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within San Quentin. Through archival footage and communications with organizers outside of San Quentin, What These Walls Won’t Hold depicts the anguish of living in prison during a pandemic—this pain, however, is juxtaposed by love-fueled organizing efforts that demonstrate the power of abolitionist practices.
True to the film’s title, Chan’s efforts were not confined to San Quentin’s walls. “I was really proud of the way our loved ones stepped up,” Chan reflected, “our mothers and wives and partners have very nuanced ways of understanding incarcerated people outside the context of any prison.” Existing relationships between folks on the inside and outside of prison laid the groundwork for Chan to advocate for COVID-19 relief. Plainly: “people actually do love people inside—they’re not just forgotten, or cast away.”
Chan contextualized these contemporary efforts with an eye toward the past. “Since the origins of this country, one of the only ways that Black folks have been able to communicate was through Black art forms.” Chan paused, conjuring the memory: “During the COVID outbreak, it was important for us to organize media and art in our political strategies—that was how we responded to what was happening.”
I asked Chan how race played a role in his efforts to organize at San Quentin. “Let me distill this down the best way I can,” he sighed, “prison is a microcosm of society.” Chan was speaking about the ways in which our society’s racist, gendered, and classist structures are inevitably reflected in the prison yard. Even more, prison guards and administration routinely enforce racial stratification. But Chan was quick to qualify: “there’s much more solidarity than people think. There were times when folks on the inside had opportunities to gather around education, music, or even just a meal, and these felt like non-carceral spaces.” The narrative of a race war in the prison yard weighed heavily on Chan’s voice; this, too, is a tyranny of silence that Chan’s work seeks to complicate.
By the end of our interview, Chan’s demeanor mirrored the work he produces: warm and matter-of-fact. We spoke about prison, art, Black history, and love—all while Chan sat in his chair, calm and relaxed. He understood the gravity of the issues, of course, but I came to learn that so much of Chan’s work is about telling his own story. He films the familiar. He writes from experience. And while the stakes are high—San Quentin, at one time, had the largest COVID-19 outbreak in California—Chan’s imperative was clear. He will finish What These Walls Won’t Hold with the Mellon Arts Fellowship at Stanford, and he will continue to make art. But at the end of the interview, Chan left me with his clearest commitment: “There are people constantly coming out of prison,” he told me, “how can those folks get their stories out, too?” The tyranny of silence is a relentless force that sculpts the way we view race and incarceration in today’s society. Thankfully, so is Chan.
Learn more about the 2022 CCSRE Mellon Arts Fellows here.
Alex Sanchez Bressler is a 2022 CCSRE Public Writing Fellow and a student at Stanford Law School, ‘24.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity at Stanford University.