When Aaron “El” Sawyer came home after spending eight years of his life in prison for a drug-related shooting, he was 25 years old. Then, he faced the daunting process of re-entering society.
“I was going to a foreign place after being institutionalized, and very used to growing up in prison,” Sawyer said. “So I had to take on a new everything, a new language, a new way of being with people, a new way of looking at life.”
He knew that he didn’t want to be sent back to prison, and he said his “life preserver” came as an unlikely opportunity: filmmaking.
Sawyer co-founded the Media In Neighborhoods Group with Jon Kaufman, a 2009 Latin American studies alumnus.
MING is a film production company that specializes in social justice documentaries and uses media to change the culture of crime, according to its website. Media In Neighborhoods Group won a Philly Geek Award for Multimedia Project of the Year last month for its work in bringing social justice issues to mainstream conversations through film.
During Kaufman’s time at Temple, he took a class that led him to the Village of Arts and Humanities, a group based out of the Hartranft neighborhood of Philadelphia. The North Philadelphia nonprofit provides arts education and a film program for teens — and it’s also where he met Sawyer in 2007.
“I just thought it was really cool to see how a medium like video, which I had never really been exposed to before, could give a platform for storytelling and self-awareness … and create careers for people who normally can’t necessarily get traditional work,” Kaufman said. “It was really interesting to be exposed to that.”
Kaufman and Sawyer founded MING in 2014 using a combination of their work, including a documentary they started together in 2011 called “Pull of Gravity.”
The title refers to the gravity that pulls former inmates back to prison in a cycle of incarceration. Prisoners like these men have to face the statistic that 67 percent of ex-offenders are sent back to prison within three years.
The documentary, which was completed in 2014, tells the stories of three Philadelphia men named Kev, Andy and Sawyer himself, who return home after prison.
“It was El’s idea to create a film that he wishes that he had been able to see when he was in prison, that would’ve helped him come out,” Kaufman said.
Kaufman said the goal of the film was to capture the challenging human process of re-entry and present it to government agencies, prisons and anyone who could benefit from learning about the experience.
“There’s nothing really like that to show you what the reality is of the transition process,” Kaufman said.
Recently, the group has been developing a curriculum and a new film project about employment for formerly incarcerated people, meant to expand on “Pull of Gravity.”
“I think we’re going to continue to do great film work, moving into doing fewer. but bigger projects and focusing on really creating more bridges between worlds that don’t communicate with each other using film,” Kaufman said. “[We’re] doing bigger, better and more impactful work, and getting more international work.”
Moriah Thoman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.