Alum’s documentary shows journey of formerly jailed

Jon Kaufman’s life would have been different if he had never taken that Community Media class. 

Kaufman wasn’t even a film major. He transferred to Temple in 2007 to take Latin American studies, but because of one class taught by Eugene Martin, Kaufman gained more than a degree when he flipped the tassel in 2009 – having discovered his love for filmmaking there, he immediately stepped into a full-time film teaching job with the Village of Arts and Humanities on Germantown Avenue.

Now, he’s preparing to release his biggest film project yet.

“We’ve had an unbelievable response,” Kaufman said.

His documentary, “Pull of Gravity,” co-directed with Aaron “El” Sawyer, outlines three inmates in their transition from prison into everyday life. This is especially close to the filmmakers’ hearts since Sawyer was incarcerated for eight years.

“The whole idea of the film is to put a face to this population of individuals who go through the prison system,” Kaufman said. “It’s a tool for [prosecutors and gatekeepers] to learn about the population they’re dealing with. You’re generally not taught to take into account where that person has come from.”

The documentary was filmed near Main Campus in the neighborhoods Fairhill and Hartranft – or, as they’ve been dubbed in the film, Beirut and the Badlands.

“The impact of Temple’s expansion has been both positive and negative – it’s provided good employment and healthcare, but it’s also buying people out, driving up rent and causing [unjust] community policing,” Kaufman said.

“Pull of Gravity” may be the biggest film Kaufman has done regarding social issues, but it isn’t the first. Part of his work nowadays is through the U.S. Attorneys’ Office, teaching at-risk youth the skills of video production as a way of violence intervention and prevention. The youth learn to act, direct and shoot while making a film that tells a story about youth violence.

“It’s youth making impactful films for other youth,” Kaufman said.

Kaufman has also made corporate videos, music videos and other projects in places such as Mexico, Brazil and Nigeria. This is especially notable considering his lack of formal training – his only exposure was getting connected to the Village through the Community Media class.

“I never took any film classes, I just started doing it,” Kaufman said. “I got exposed to it through [the Village] and fell in love with it. I borrowed cameras, shot things for free, got involved any way that I could … I just volunteered my time and got to know the kids and all the neighborhood, and it became like a second home for me.”

He also cited the help of Professor Ron Webb from the Latin American studies department and Jose Oyola, an AV service manager in the College of Liberal Arts, who was his boss in work study, as people from Temple who have pushed him forward in his work.

“Pull of Gravity” is showing in advance screenings across the nation and is being submitted to film festivals for next year with hopes of distribution for then as well. If Mayor Nutter’s response to the film was any indication, this may happen.

“[We could] maybe have a showing at City Hall,” Nutter said in a video interview with Kaufman. “I want more and more people to see … what’s going on. We want to get rid of that other term … ex-offenders. I talk about returned citizens. Let’s get people to be returned citizens and be responsible for themselves and the community. That’s really what I want to do, and this film is going to be very helpful [in that].”

Actor Michael K. Williams, known for his performances in TV shows “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire,” also voiced support for the film.

“Everybody out there, if you’re from any type of pain, any type of poverty and type of struggle, there is a voice in this documentary that will speak to you,” Williams said in a video review of the film.

While Kaufman is happy with the response the film has gotten so far, he said he is far from wanting to simply ride the wave of success.

“I want to make bigger and better projects that have an impact, that awaken people’s perceptions and reach people’s souls about social issues that are lying under the surface – trying to make a difference and empower people through art and film,” Kaufman said. “[‘Pull of Gravity’] is necessary, it’s important, people need to have this discussion and this provides a venue for it. [But] it’s just the beginning.”

Nathan Landis Funk can be reached at landis.funk@temple.edu.

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