“When you send a man home from prison it’s like giving somebody a bath and putting dirty clothes back on ‘em,” El Sawyer tells me. The 36-year-old filmmaker and Philadelphian spent a decade behind bars before the age of 25 so he knows what he’s talking about. With more than 700,000 men and women leaving prisons and jails each year, Sawyer is one of the 25 percent who do not return within five years. How he manages to overcome the challenges of re-entry while most do not is the subject of his film, “Pull of Gravity,” co-directed with Jon Kaufman. Filmed in 2012 with major support from the U.S. Attorneys’ office (yes, the federal prosecutors’ office) and with an expected summer release, the film follows El and other men who’ve returned home to the 22nd police district, the most violent in Philadelphia. Colorlines caught up with El at a recent Brooklyn screening. It’s the latest in a yearlong national tour he’s been on with his mentor, Robert Reed, executive assistant U.S. attorney in Pennsylvania’s Eastern District.
How’d you get the idea to film what it’s like to come home from prison?
I had the idea while I was locked up. I had this paper written out of the movie since like 1996.
When did you come home?
I’ve been home 11 years, [since 2003]. But it was only like in 2011 that I publicly started telling people I was ever locked up. When I came home I had this thought that to be successful and stay out here, I had to separate myself from my past. I knew people was gonna discriminate against me based off of me having a record.
Were you ever discriminated against?
It never happened because I never said anything. Just before I met [my mentor] Rob, I had made my mind up that I was gonna stretch my arm in that direction and use my skillset as a filmmaker to combat that discrimination.
“Ban the Box” legislation is a hot topic in many states right now. You’ve done documentary work for nonprofits, corporations—didn’t the criminal record question ever pop up on employment applications? No one ever asked you?
The funny thing is, to this day I’ve never filled out a job application before. I’ve been blessed. When I do film, a lot of times I never even show my previous work [because people hire me] off of word-of-mouth. It worked out for me because I kept good relationships with people. And I was very fortunate because I came home to a job at The Village of Arts and Humanities. It was a nontraditional situation.
You went to prison when you were just turning 18 and came out at 25 to a new job. How’d you land a job while in prison?
As you see in the film, I was exposed to a woman named Lily Yeh. She started Village Arts and I met her in prison. One day she asked me what I wanted to do when I got home and I said, I wanna start my own film company. And she said, “I got somebody for you.” She introduced me to Glenn Holsten who’s a documentary filmmaker. And he took his time to actually come up to Graterford [the largest maximum security prison in Pennsylvania] and teach me film for close to six years.
How far away was Graterford for Holsten?
It was like an hour and 15-minute ride, but then there’s also a huge process to get in the prison itself, not just the visiting area. And he did it multiple times a week sometimes.
So it must have been you and other students?
No, it was just me. It was supposed to be me and four other guys; that’s the only way Glenn said he’d do it. So I got a number of guys who were already on the prison’s internal film crew to come and take the class. But they just dropped off. But I wanted to learn film. [Back then, for me] it wasn’t about “right now,” it was about when I went home. But they were lifers, long termers you know. I had eight years. It was a long time to do, but in that context you can’t even talk about how much time you got ‘cause it ain’t nothing.
For almost six years, Holsten taught you basically the same film curriculum he used for his university students. Did your family know you were doing all of this?
It’s interesting. I really couldn’t tell my family a whole lot about it; that’s just one of those things about doing time. My family expected me to sell drugs when I came home. They really didn’t know anything different than that. My dad died when I was 10. I sold drugs from the time I was 12 ‘til I was 15 or 16. Before I did eight years [at Graterford] I did almost two years in juvenile. I came home and went right back to prison. In between that gap, that’s when I had my son.
By the time we meet your son onscreen it’s pretty late in the film and every other male before him was struggling with life after prison. But then this grinning kid pops up with a regular teenager’s problem, like, “I’m just trying to get some cash from my pops.”
[Laughs.] Yeah, that’s all he does! He’s a mess. He’s at Shaw University right now.
That’s fantastic. I want to move a bit into policy because your film is making the rounds at a time when, for the first time in 40 years, there’s momentum to reform the criminal justice system. Have you seen evidence of that?
Yes, definitely. Just the relationship I’ve built with Rob is what I see nationally about how receptive the Department of Justice is to issues of re-entry. Since last January we’ve had 72 pre-screenings so far from Minnesota to Texas to Florida and Alabama. The film is being used as a tool to culminate efforts around re-entry in that particular region or city. It’s really rare that the D.O.J. is supporting or sponsoring this kind of initiative around re-entry and it’s only been in the last couple of years that a mandate came down to consider re-entry as [a main part of] the criminal justice system. That’s huge. You’ve got people like Rob, for instance, who’s spent 30 years in the U.S. Attorneys’ office; he’ll admit that he’s never been instructed to look at the re-entry aspect. It was literally, “Lock them up.” And with that mentality you’re not thinking of people as humans. And that’s what’s different. That’s changing.
Most of your audience has been law enforcement so far. What do you hope this film teaches them?
We would like to think that [what] we’re adding to the conversation isn’t life after but our focus is the environment people are coming home to.
What do you mean by “the environment?”
People don’t come home to Philadelphia, for instance, as a whole. They only go home to like three maybe four sections. In Chicago, there’s 77 districts; 60 percent of people go home to six of them. There’s these pockets in every city, whether it’s Dallas, Duluth or Salt Lake City. That’s important because if you map a city, those pockets will match those with the highest dropout rate, highest unemployment, highest poverty rate—it’s those same areas. You can take someone in prison, you can dust ‘em off and give ‘em a GED or anger management or whatever—that’s all well and good. But when you send him home it’s like giving somebody a bath and putting dirty clothes back on him. We can’t talk about re-entry unless we talk about the areas these people are re-entering to. Hopefully, we’re bringing awareness that these environments they come home to are not conducive to growth.
That’s reminding me of the powerful raid scene in your film, where neighbors look on while the cops had you outside for what looked like hours one night while searching your house for drugs.
That’s one of the consequences of being in that environment. I purposely bought property there. I’m in my house and one of these young guys knocks on the door and asks my homie if he has a cigarette. I’m upstairs chilling. The guy leaves. The cops stop him at the end of the block and he has drugs on him. And they thought he got ‘em from my house. So you see the whole raid scene in the film.
For someone just out of prison, how does surveillance at home compare to surveillance in prison?
It’s very similar, just in the structure. In the movie, [the 17-year-old] Kevin says it’s up to the [correction officers] if you have a good day or bad day. That’s how the cops are too. A cop could have a bad day and ruin your whole life or your whole day—like my house getting raided. God only knows what happened to let them get a warrant to search my house. God only knows how that went through. So the surveillance is very similar. A lot of the work of this film has been about showing it to cops and sensitizing them to this. These cops are told they’re going into a war zone and they act that way.
As someone who came home and who purposely stays in the 22nd precinct neighborhood do you think the men there feel like they’re being constantly watched and by whom?
Yeah, you figure that from the amount of people on parole and probation and the amount of cops in the area. There’s a huge watched feeling. Just at nighttime it feels like you’re in an airport. There are literally helicopters, like constantly.
So it’s like walking from one prison into another?
Oh yeah. There’s no difference.
Are you still in touch with Kevin and Andy, 44, the two other men featured in “Pull of Gravity?” In the credits, it said they’d gotten arrested.
Both are out now. But both have been back twice since the film on two different things.
What do you think happened? Why did they return?
For their own independent reasons. Kev wasn’t prepared at all to come home. Andy just didn’t get the services he needs. Andy is hugely addicted [to drugs] and Kev, he really don’t have any tools, no ability to avoid any of the pitfalls at all. He doesn’t even see [not living a street life] as being possible.
Run the numbers. How many guys did you initially interview for the film? Where are they now?
We interviewed 15 men for the film. 12 went back to jail or prison since the film came out last January. Three have been killed.