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Chesa Boudin film chronicles ex-San Francisco DA’s traumatic childhood

Former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin opens up about his life and family’s story in a new documentary, called “Beyond Bars: It’s a Movement, Not a Moment.” | Source: Courtesy Brave New Films

A little over a year ago, voters ousted Chesa Boudin as San Francisco’s district attorney, ending the 2½-year reign of a prosecutor who had eliminated cash bail and vowed to hold police accountable. 

Boudin—a pioneer of the so-called progressive prosecutor movement—was seen by many as a lightning rod for growing discontent in the city over rising property crime and disorder on the streets. 

Former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, second from left, discusses prison reform and progressive politics during a post-screening Q&A of "Beyond Bars: It's a Movement, Not a Moment" at the San Francisco Public Library's Koret Auditorium on Wednesday. | Source: Christina Campodonico/The Standard

The former DA dipped back into San Francisco politics on Wednesday with the debut of a new documentary about his life. Beyond Bars: It’s Movement, Not a Moment chronicles Boudin’s 2019 campaign for San Francisco DA on a progressive platform, how his life was shaped by the incarceration of his parents—two famed members of the radical militant group the Weather Underground—and how these stories intersect with systemic issues facing families across the criminal justice system.   

The premiere at the San Francisco Public Library’s Koret Auditorium also doubled as a rally of sorts to energize progressive voters for the city’s November 2024 election, and the ousted DA did not mince words on how he sees the current state of city governance, which he called a “dictatorship.” 

“It is horrible to watch what is happening in this city,” Boudin said during a panel discussion following the screening. 

It wasn’t clear whether this barb was directed at District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, the prosecutor who replaced him, or at Mayor London Breed—who’s pushing the city’s recent crackdown on crime as a cornerstone of her reelection bid in 2024. Boudin did not respond to The Standard’s request for clarification of the comment.

READ MORE: The Rise and Fall of Chesa Boudin: Why a Progressive DA Lost in Deep-Blue San Francisco

Whoever was his intended target, Boudin insisted that “this campaign and this movement was never about me or my career.”

He added that he chose not to seek reelection in 2024 to avoid repeating “the same mistakes that my parents made of putting politics before family. 

“I had to think about how could I continue to do work that was so profoundly important to me, to my community, the city that I loved,” Boudin told the audience. 

In interviews for the documentary "Beyond Bars" conducted before her 2022 death, activist, educator and academic Kathy Boudin reflects on raising her son, former District Attorney Chesa Boudin, from behind prison walls. | Source: Courtesy Brave New Films

Since leaving office, Boudin has taken on a new job heading UC Berkeley Law’s new Criminal Law & Justice Center, a research and advocacy hub focusing on criminal justice reform. 

The U.S. criminal justice system has shaped Boudin’s life from the start. As chronicled in the film, Boudin was just 14 months old when his parents—then Weather Underground members—left him with a babysitter to take part in a botched heist of a Brink’s armored truck in 1981 that ultimately left two police officers and a security guard dead. 

A film still from the documentary "Beyond Bars" shows a family photo of a young Chesa Boudin with his father, David Gilbert. | Source: Courtesy Brave New Films

Boudin’s mother, Kathy Boudin, who died last year after a long battle with cancer, was released on parole in 2003 after serving more than 20 years in prison and became an advocate for criminal justice reform, people with HIV/AIDS and children’s literacy. Boudin’s father, David Gilbert, was imprisoned for 40 years before his sentence was commuted by former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2021. Gilbert was in attendance at Wednesday’s screening. 

READ MORE: Who Is Chesa Boudin? Meet the San Francisco DA at the Center of a Media Storm

The pain of the separation between Boudin and his parents is documented with heartfelt excerpts from letters between Boudin and his imprisoned father, as well as collect calls and candid interviews with Gilbert and Kathy Boudin before her death. Throughout the film, Boudin’s parents express remorse for participating in the Brink’s heist and leaving behind their infant son. 

The documentary also illustrates the emotional toll Boudin experienced as a child moving between the stable Chicago home of his adoptive parents, another Weather Underground couple named Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, and visiting his real parents behind bars. Dohrn recounts in the film how Boudin as a toddler would fall into two-day temper tantrums, and Ayers recalls how the clang of prison doors haunted the adolescent Boudin. The film also stresses how even short family visits like the ones Boudin was able to have with his family as a teenager can offer short stints of normalcy for families separated by incarceration. 

Brave New Films' documentary on the life of Chesa Boudin includes vintage family photos from his childhood. | Source: Courtesy Brave New Films

Social media footage from Boudin’s 2019 campaign for district attorney, as well as policy accomplishments from his tenure, such as abolishing cash bail and filing unprecedented homicide charges against a former SFPD officer, also illustrate the optimism and momentum of the progressive prosecutor movement at the time.      

READ MORE: The Recall of Chesa Boudin: How the Pandemic Fed a National Attack on Progressive Prosectors

Director Robert Greenwald, who is also the president of Brave New Films, the social justice-oriented not-for-profit film company that produced the documentary, said he was drawn to Boudin’s story because it illustrates the universal pain of family separation.  

“The idea of four parents—two locked up, two not—it’s extraordinary,” Greenwald said. 

The filmmakers hope that Boudin’s story—intertwined with those of formerly incarcerated people, prison reform activists and children with parents in prison—will mobilize reforms. The documentary will be screened in several U.S. cities this winter before being released on the Brave New Films website in mid-January. 

A film still from the new documentary about Chesa Boudin's life, "Beyond Bars," captures a moment from the former DA's 2019 campaign victory night. | Source: Eddy Hernandez/Courtesy Brave New Films

Boudin told the Standard the film was “a story about mass incarceration and racial injustice in this country, and one person’s struggle to fight for a better, safer world.” 

Despite the recall that forced him from office prematurely, Boudin believes that “the movement of progressive prosecution and criminal justice reform is growing. It has momentum. And I have tremendous confidence that the policies and practices championed by this movement will continue to advance safety and be popular amongst voters.”

Boudin told Wednesday’s audience that he was excited to see who would step up to run against Jenkins to become the city’s next DA. He added, “I’m so excited to see who’s going to step up and beat London Breed.”