What These Walls Won't Hold

Incarcerated at San Quentin during the COVID-19 outbreak, a filmmaker chronicles his journey.
Year Released
Film Length(s)
43 mins
Remote video URL


Adamu Chan's powerful documentary transcends the COVID-19 pandemic, revealing resilience and hope inside San Quentin State Prison. As a formerly incarcerated person, Chan offers an insider's perspective on his journey to freedom while amplifying the voices of his community on both sides of the prison walls.


Transcending the grim realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, Adamu Chan's powerful documentary, What These Walls Won't Hold, paints a poignant portrait of resilience and hope blossoming within the confines of San Quentin State Prison. Chan, formerly incarcerated himself, offers a unique insider's view as he weaves a tapestry of the many threads of relationships that bind together his community. The film delves into his own journey towards freedom, while simultaneously amplifying the voices of his fellow incarcerated and their loved ones on both sides of the prison walls.

Their interwoven stories shed light on a vibrant community forged in the crucible of adversity. Trust, unwavering resilience, and a shared yearning for a more just future bind them together. They navigate the challenges of incarceration with dignity and determination, finding solace and purpose in mutual support and advocacy. Their experiences illuminate the immense potential for positive change within even the most confined spaces.

What These Walls Won't Hold is not merely a chronicle of life behind bars; it's a powerful call to action. Chan's lens captures the yearning for liberation not just for individuals within the prison system, but for a society free from oppressive structures that perpetuate cycles of incarceration. By showcasing the human spirit's boundless capacity for compassion and resistance, the film serves as an inspiring blueprint for a world where empathy and justice prevail.

Director Commentary

One of the most important things that I want to convey in this film is the closeness that people who are incarcerated and their communities share, in spite of the separations created by prisons. One of the things I’ve felt strongly about in the making of What These Walls Won't Hold is creating an intimate language that allows the viewer to feel like they are in the experience of people loving each other beyond prison walls. I understood that I could make a film that was explicit about the facts of historical events that happened during this period of time, and told from an “objective” lens, but I wasn’t really interested in making a film that was too journalistic because I had seen films where I felt like I got a lot of information but didn’t really experience anything. I wanted to make a film that allowed audiences to feel what I felt inside of this moment — the tremendous strength, vitality, and commitment that this community has to each other and to imagining a future for themselves. It was also against the backdrop of traditional media about prisons that are told from an outsider’s perspective, and at times, unintentionally, does the work of othering incarcerated people. I wanted to make a film that starts from a place of trust and deep knowing between people, people whom society has deemed unworthy of such trust. This approach felt more authentic and like it carried more emotional impact.

This film is mainly shot in verite style from my point of view as the filmmaker. The viewer watches most of the film through my camera lens as I move through different experiences and phases of incarceration and post-incarceration. I read letters I’ve written to loved ones, both from the inside and outside the walls, and guide the audience through the twists and turns of my story. This voice over technique also shares the reality of letters as a primary mode of connecting with community across prison walls. I serve as a character and a guide for the audience, allowing them to connect with the film emotionally and see the world through my eyes.

I also use alternatives to the linearity of traditional narrative construction as a counter to the regimented time of the incarcerated experience. I jump from my freedom, to the time of my incarceration, and back, in order to disrupt and reorganize the ways in which we think about identities across time for people who have been incarcerated. Another central theme is the ocean. San Quentin sits next to the water of the San Francisco Bay, which to me, represents not only proximity to freedom, but also the boundlessness of the human spirit. Through the use of letters and phone calls, I create a world that is somewhere between reality and imagination, which is akin to the experience of loving and imagining beyond walls.

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