Ex-con, U.S. attorney team up on film

Filmmaker and ex-con El Sawyer (left) visits with Kev Stanard, 19, in his Fairhill apartment. Stanard is one of the subjects of the documentary "Pull of Gravity" who returned to society from prison.
Filmmaker and ex-con El Sawyer (left) visits with Kev Stanard, 19, in his Fairhill apartment. Stanard is one of the subjects of the documentary "Pull of Gravity" who returned to society from prison. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 29, 2013

The first time El Sawyer found himself on the 12th floor of One Independence Mall, seated across a shiny conference table from Zane David Memeger, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, his instincts got the better of him.

"I was terrified," Sawyer said. Just seven years out of Graterford Prison, where he had learned filmmaking, Sawyer, 34, was taking meetings with the region's top prosecutor.

"I'm very familiar with the reputation of the federal system," Sawyer said. "I started looking at the glass: Is it double-paned? How many floors up?"

Resisting the impulse to flee, Sawyer eventually got the chance to do what the filmmaker in him was born to do: pitch a movie, a documentary with codirector Jon Kaufman about inmates reentering society.

Memeger, more familiar with strategizing prosecutions of organized criminals, now was in the role of studio head. He did what they do: green-lighted the project, backing it with $30,000 in department funds.

And so the odd partnership was born in December 2011. Tuesday night, the hour-long documentary Pull of Gravity will be screened at the Constitution Center before 200 invited guests. The audience will include judges, city officials, and the subjects in the film, including Kev Stanard, 19, of North Philadelphia, who was filmed just a day after returning home from serving three years on a drug charge. He was given a "plus four" to the premiere: four invited guests.

Memeger says the U.S. Attorney's Office is not trying to go Hollywood. Rather, the alliance has roots in a desire to bring new ideas and deepen the understanding of a complicated and intractable problem on both ends of the criminal justice system.

"People like myself can talk to young people, say 'Don't commit crime,' but at the end of the day we're viewed as men in suits, women in suits, 'You don't understand me,' " Memeger said. "We have to find people the young audience can identify with."

Memeger said the relationship with Sawyer and Kaufman grew out of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's mandate in 2010 to address violent crime in cities through prevention and a focus on reentry as well as prosecution.

"You can't arrest your way out of a problem," Memeger said in an interview Friday in the same conference room where Sawyer pitched his idea. "Most offenders will get back out into the community."

Memeger's interest in prisoners dates to law school at the University of Virginia; upon graduation, he received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Public Service for his work on behalf of the incarcerated. But the 48-year-old said his relatively privileged upbringing - he was a gymnast at James Madison University - left him without direct knowledge of the challenges facing those he has sent to prison.

Sawyer's experience provided the bridge the office sought. A native of Lancaster, Sawyer was sent to Graterford at age 17 on an aggravated assault charge. A drug dealer at the time, Sawyer said he shot a man trying to rob him. Faced with eight years in jail, Sawyer took up video production, aided by the artist Lily Yeh and the filmmaker Glen Holsten, both of whom worked with inmates.

They led him, upon his release 10 years ago, to the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia, where he serves as operations director. There, he met Kaufman, then a sophomore at Temple University taking a class that brought him to the village. Their partnership took off. (Filmmaker Seven Halseman did postproduction work). At the time, Robert Reed, Memeger's executive assistant, was looking to do a youth video program.

Stanard, the 19-year-old, was first filmed by Sawyer when he was 9, in one of two video projects Sawyer made with children at the village, funded by the U.S. attorney.

The many expressions of Stanard shown in the movie - as a carefree child, as a wound-tight teenager just out of prison, and as a visibly unburdened man talking about his first legitimate paycheck - are among the film's indelible images. Monday, at his home in the Fairhill Apartments, Stanard said he no longer held the job but had stayed out of trouble a year later, mostly by staying inside. (His brother, a rapper also in the film, is back in prison.)

The third narrative strand in the film belongs to Andy A., who did not allow his last name. He spent 25 years in and out of prison and struggles with drug addiction.

Future screenings, for youths, relatives of the incarcerated, service workers, and others, are in the works. The filmmakers said the U.S. Attorney's Office kept tabs on the film, but made no content demands. Turns out the attorneys are good studio heads. "Sometimes, people would say, 'What you doing working for the feds?' " Kaufman said.

As for Memeger, he acknowledged that the project might seem a little "touchy-feely" for a federal prosecutor and runs counter to the idea of the steely prosecutor who sends people away and considers the job won.

"I view us in a time of shifting mind-sets," Memeger said. "You have a limited pool of resources. I'm still hard-core in terms of investigating and prosecuting serious offenders. But once I prosecute you and get you sentenced, and you've done your time, I want you to be successful. I don't want to see you again."

Unless, perhaps, you've got a movie idea to pitch.

The U.S. Attorney's Office funds a documentary film, Pull of Gravity, that tells the story of three people returning to society after being in jail. See a video at www.philly.com/gravity

Contact Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681 or arosenberg@phillynews.com. Follow on twitter @amysrosenberg.

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