Future Memory welcomes El Sawyer and Jon Kaufman of MING Media. MING stands for Media In Neighborhoods Group – words that speak to WHERE Jon and El have been focusing their documentary work and the community-centered stories they’re known for telling. It’s been almost 10 years since the debut of Pull of Gravity, their first film and breakout project that shaped their future path in collaborative filmmaking. Pull of Gravity offers a rarely seen perspective on the prison system and those it impacts through the process of re-entry and the almost inescapable force of recidivism. In this episode, El and Jon share their own story of how they met, their style of collaboration and documentation, and how their non-linear, “human” approach to storytelling has taken them to neighborhoods around the world and ultimately changed both of their lives. We also talk about MING’s recent work with Monument Lab on projects like Re:Generation and Beyond Granite: Pulling Together that underscore both partners’ connections to the power of truth-telling and the understanding that like monuments, the permanence of media can be hurtful to those it represents or misrepresents and to the communities who will remember its record.
Li: Welcome Jon Kaufman and El Sawyer to Future Memory.
Jon: Thank you for having us.
El: Thank you, cool name.
Li: So what's your origin story? How did Jon and El become Ming Media?
Jon: It's an interesting story and there's not really one particular magical spark, but it definitely was an organic process from my perspective, right? El his own journey and perspective with it, but I never really considered filmmaking as a career at all when I was younger, I never wanted to be like a Hollywood person, never wanted to direct or anything like that, but I was always interested in storytelling and especially advocacy and just trying to combat the narratives that I knew were false. I didn't know how to do that. And then it wasn't until I went to Temple and took a class, which was, I forget the name of, it's something around community media, which was a film class. I wasn't a film major at all, didn't study a film at Temple, but this class took me to the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philly where El was teaching video production to neighborhood youth.
And that was my first real exposure to filmmaking was this model that was completely outside of the traditional structure of what we consider to be like mass media and filmmaking in Hollywood storytelling, and just kind of fell in love with it. The idea that it was probably 2007 and cameras were just starting to get a little more accessible. Editing software was just starting to get a little bit more accessible to people. And so it was really this moment where I felt like, "Oh wow, this is something I could do." And I saw the power of it with what El was doing with kids in the neighborhood and just to be able to tell their own stories. Then I graduated Temple, El hired me to take over his position, actually The Village as the video instructor there and started teaching there, and I taught there for many, many years.
And then we started doing our different projects together. At the time, I was just hustling music videos and whatever I could do to pay the bills with video. And I think our work really kind of solidified around 2010 or so when we started working with the Department of Justice in the US Attorney's office here in Philly to make Pull of Gravity. And that's what really kind of solidified our work and sort of joined us as a partnership and took our work to the next level. And we started Ming shortly after that. But that's a short version of it, and El has a different story for sure of how he got to The Village.
Li: Right? There's always two sides to first encounter.
El: There's three sides actually. Yeah, that's a good rendition. I think from that perspective, from my perspective, as you would see in "Pull of Gravity", I was introduced to film while I was in prison, and I had never wanted to be a filmmaker either. I was stabbed while I was in prison, and I didn't think I was going to go home. And there was an internal video crew inside the institution, and my plan was to kind of work my way onto the video crew in an event I didn't go home to basically make videos to send home to my son at the time.
Not to be dramatic about it, but just like-
Li: Like the archive of, yeah.
El: ... or a suicide note. I mean, it could be a lot of different things that way in event that I wasn't going to be there, it was something I would leave to him and I would sneak it out of the prison. And I did. I did about 10 videos. In that process, I was on the video crew just to get access to the cameras, and I had a chance meeting with Glenn Holsten, who was a Philadelphia filmmaker that came into the institution. And at no point, like I said, I was only on the video crew for that access to the cameras. And then he was accompanying Lily Yeh, who's the founder of the Village of Arts and Humanities into the institution, and he was documenting her work. She started a program at Graterford Prison, and in that he was allowed to come document her and her work there, but he wasn't allowed to bring camera crew or equipment.
So they asked the camera crew internally, did anybody want to assist with him and nobody wanted to, and I volunteered to do that and it changed my life. So that was my sort of coming into film and even knowing that that was even an alternative that way. And in the process of doing that, I felt like there's this interesting quote, John Hendrick Clark, this author, and he said this quote, he says, "It's your duty to fashion your lived experience as a tool for liberation." And I feel like that's ... My elders used to say [inaudible 00:04:21] used to say that all the time to me. And I felt like in a lot of ways when I came home, that was my thought is how can I use my lived experience and who I am and my skillset to actually give other people the opportunity that I didn't have?
So coming home, doing film with Glenn was really just like interning and trying to figure it out, navigate like that. And I had a job at the Village, and Lily Yeh gave me the opportunity to basically provide training and support to youth there at the organization and folks in the community teaching them what I knew about film. And I was kind of learning it as I go. And I did, so for a number of years and then in comes Jon, and this partnership I had with Temple and the professor at the time, Jon's professor, to bring that class. They had to learn along with the class that I was teaching at the Village. And it was love at first sight. I love him like a little brother or like a brother, honestly. And that's been our relationship ever since.
Li: Well, that's a perfect segue to this next question about your relationship as working collaborators. What's your collaborative style like and would you say you've developed any kind of shorthand or secret language to get more effective with your process?
El: Yes, and yes in every way, but I'll let Jon jump in on that. What you got, Jon?
Jon: Yeah, there's a lot to that honestly, because I think neither one of us is really trained in any sort of traditional way. El, like he said, his first exposure was in Graterford, in prison using equipment that was probably way outdated and with very limited sort of technical training. But obviously Glenn was super helpful to him. And then for myself, I didn't study film in any traditional way. At the time I probably couldn't have named one director in the world besides Spielberg or whatever. I didn't know anything about that film world. I think just the fact that we don't come from the traditional filmmaking world has always been our thing where we're humans first. We just engage with people as humans and want to always take that approach where it's not about extracting a story or like, "Oh, how can we make the most exciting or dramatic stuff?"
It's more about connecting with folks on a really human level and less about telling their stories, but really giving them a platform to tell their own stories and assisting people telling their own stories. We sort of see ourselves as a vehicle and as a tool for folks to leverage their own storytelling. So our process is super collaborative and sometimes to our detriment, it can be hard. It's not linear. None of this stuff is linear. And I think traditional production is like, oh, you write a script, you shoot it, you edit it. But we work with real people with real stories and a lot of our stuff, most of it is around trauma and very traumatic stuff and very heavy stuff and dealing with equity and violence and poverty and racism and it's really, really heavy stuff. So it's really important for us to connect with people on a really natural level first before doing any filming.
We come from different backgrounds. I grew up in Germantown in the 90s, but I didn't grow up in poverty, but I experienced a lot of violence in my neighborhood and violence in the home and all kinds of stuff. And in college I tried to look at that experience through lens of urban studies and sociology, and I was like, "This is bullshit, putting people into categories, just labeling people." I was like, "This is bullshit." The academic approach to looking at what I was trying to understand about my experience growing up was not working for me. And then I think the sort of community filmmaking was just a way of like, "Oh wow, this is it. This is a way for real people to tell their own stories with some assistance from their own perspective," I think. So it was really just powerful to realize the power and the gap that community storytelling and community media could fill, not just in my own understanding of the world, but I feel just missing from the conversations that are happening in the newspapers and in mainstream media, so yeah.
Li: Exactly. And are there additional folks that are working with you? Do you have an expanded team?
Jon: We used to have a larger team. Covid kind of had us downsize a bit, but our main producer is Gabe Wiener. He's an amazing producer, filmmaker. He's been in Philly for about 15 years now, so he's our primary producer. But we work with a lot of folks all over Philadelphia and around the country and around the world too. But yeah, mostly we staff up as needed for different projects, but we could run down a huge list of names that are Philadelphia folks. But no, it's a collaborative effort, right? We work with so many different people and we're super grateful. It's not a solo sport. There's so many people. We've been talking about our film Music Vets, which we'll get to later, but when the credits roll in one of our films, there's like a hundred names or something of people. So yeah, that's the short answer.
El: And to the point of just like you're saying secret language or how we operate together, a lot of it's nonverbal, like I say when I say Jon and I are like brothers, that's not an exaggeration at all. A lot of times it's so nonverbal. And then to bridge that to our team, a lot of our team either learned from us or learned with us, and I always look at it as like a Philly style. I don't know why. I associate it as a Philadelphia style. Philadelphia style has been for us as a sort of Guerilla style. We do it all. If somebody calls us to do, "Yep, we can do it," whatever, and we'll figure it out. And we're super resourceful and nothing is beyond us in the sense of we're not too good for a thing. If I'm a director, if we're directors, we go to a scene, I'll be cleaning up the block.
It's like nothing's beyond you to do. But with that said, with respect to the team that we're working with, again, like Jon said, we staff up accordingly because sometimes we document in sometimes very compromising or very complex environments. So we're super conscious of the human there in their environment and everything. And our crew has to make sense and comprehend in which the environment we're going to be filming in. And we take that very serious and we're really honored when people give us interviews and just basically allow us into their world and we really caretake that. And again, like Jon said earlier too, our detriment a lot of times because we're just uber sensitive, because we uber understand how media can be hurtful and has been weaponized, and we control that in that way on behalf of the people that we work with.
Jon: And our crews are really small. Like I was saying, we're filming super sensitive situations a lot of the times. We'll be in a city that we've never been to in the Deep South on a block that has an active situation going on. And we've been granted access to film there in the middle of the night and it's very active. And it's just El and myself, and we're trusting our host and they're trusting us and it is what it is, but we can't come in there with lights and boom mics and big crew. And sometimes we have to bring in a crew from New York and it's like they show up with a truck and lights and 15 dudes, and it's like, that's not our approach at all. We just can't operate like that at all.
Li: You have to shape-shift to your environment and the communities you're in.
Jon: Yeah, and I think we kind of start from that shape, right? Our shape is the sort of that community aspect and we scale up when we have to. But I think our style and what makes our work, you know, gives us so much of that access and that power is that we try to do it with as little as possible and just meet people where they are and not try to be invasive at all. And that can be in a lot of ways through the questions we ask or don't ask, but also how we come into someone's home or how we come into someone's neighborhood.
El: And represent those things too. Very conscious that we're not going to ask certain questions. And again, our team and our staff has to understand that as well. And we can't have folks on our team just randomly, you know what I mean? So we do a lot of pre-prep and a lot of pre-production and around even information, around the topics that we're working on. If it's foreign to us, we source folks that know or we engage that particular community. We recognize that we're not of that community in a lot of times, so we respect that and we operate accordingly and empower from there and staff from there and everything like that. Again, that's why it's difficult to just say, "Oh, we're a production company. We just kind of write the script and just go do it." It's not the case at all. Our process is as important as the product that we create.
Li: Now you mentioned "Pull of Gravity" as your breakout project and probably the first film where you got to flex your muscles as a team working together. Now in hindsight, almost a decade later, how has "Pull of Gravity" impacted MING's trajectory in the industry and where you are today as a team?
Jon: That's a great question.
El: I mean, it impacted us like crazy, and I can speak just personally. "Pull of Gravity" was never meant to be, ultimately what it was or have, even the reach that it had, that was never even on the forefront of that thought. It was originally seated in a thought I had years ago when I was in prison, when I first was introduced to film is I knew that once I started to be introduced to that world and started to think now, "Wow, I may go home and then how am I going to be successful going home?" I seen from the position I had being in prison that I seen people that were smarter than me, older than me. I went to prison at 17.
I had just did two years in juvenile prior to that, hadn't graduated high school, never had a job. I had no source of foundation to come home and actually activate and become anything that I was imagining at the time. So I was conscious of that. So I was scared that if I go home, what do I have in my access that shows me where I'm coming home to so I can then tool up or position myself at least mentally to actually be effective and come home in an appropriate way? So that's what "Pull of Gravity" was sort of rooted in, is in that. How do we show people inside institution, how do we show lawmakers and whatever this world, there was a gap in the communications right across the board. That's how we seen it. So documenting "Pull of gravity" originally was meant to be what it was, but also it caught on fire that way. It really-
Li: It did. I mean, as a witness, someone who got to see you all working on the film when you were in production and some of the folks that you interviewed and then to see it. I remember you had a screening, where was it? It was like-
Jon: Constitution Center.
Li: The Constitution Center.
Jon: Yeah, I think that was our very first screening. Yeah.
Li: Yeah. Oh my gosh. It was powerful because there were some special people in the room, powerful people I think it was on everyone's minds that, "Oh wow, this film is making an impact, and this is just the beginning." We could tell the film was going to go places and that you were going with it.
El: Yeah, there was buses of folks that got turned away that there was just not a capacity for it. So that was important, and then in that, that was shock to us. And then it just spoke to the need of the disconnection that existed, and it taught us a lot. I mean, that exposure of traveling around to areas that I just would never, and Jon either I'm speaking for Jon, but we would've never thought that that was going to take off like that, and that need existed there, but it did, and it still does. And like you say, 10 years later, I don't know another film that's come out that matches in that genuine state that it was created in at all.
Jon: Yeah, and the conversation around reentries and returning citizens, and it's huge now. There's so many programs, there's so many ways in the organizations. 10, 12 years ago, it was not the same situation. So at the time it was the film was made under a mandate from Eric Holder, the Attorney General at the time, and it was to ask local US attorney's offices to start thinking of different ways to do community engagement, but specifically talking about reentry, and that's the power of film. There's a way for people to come together in a room that would normally never have a conversation, never be in the same room at the same time. And the film provided a way that people are going to come see a film for entertainment, for education, for an experience. And that's just the power of what it can do is it can bring, you know, we had federal prosecutors in the room, we had former incarcerated people, we had community members. Mayor Nutter requested tickets [inaudible 00:16:29] was like, "I have to be there." It was a huge thing.
Li: It was a huge thing.
Jon: Yeah. And at the time there was very little resources in this space, especially resources created by someone who had been in prison that told the experience from an authentic way. And we toured the film around the country for probably three or four years. And like I was saying earlier, we thought we would have a little bit of interest in, oh, New York, la, Chicago. We found ourselves in Pensacola, Florida, Minnesota, Western Pennsylvania, Upstate New York, all over the country. California screening in federal probation in Northern California, we're like, "Wow, we had no idea," because there was such a lack of resources and education and knowledge in this space at that time.
Li: Here’s a clip from the trailer of “Pull of Gravity”. [ clip plays ]
Jon: At the time we were comparing our film to reentry programs in prison, and the contrast is just absurd. The stuff they were making that was meant to prepare people to come home was probably still in use. It's literally a joke. And maybe El could speak to more to it, but once we found out about what was actually being used in prison at the time to prepare people to come home, we're like, "Oh, wow, this is not going to work."
Li: This is not going to work.
Jon: This is not going to work. And this film is not just a supplement, but almost an antidote to those terrible programs. And the film is used as a training program, not just for correctional officers, for social workers, for probation, parole officers, it's also used for people in prison all over the country as a tool to prepare them to come home. So it's really manifested in the vision that El had for it at the very beginning to help people prepare themselves because it's real out there.
Li: Well, yeah, and as an educator too, one of the things that I recognized from the film when I saw it was how much I learned not just about reentry, but about this big word recidivism, which I didn't know much about. And understanding that it's not just about preparing folks for reentry into their community, but also preparing them to make sure they don't return to prison.
Jon: I think also it's about preparing society to better accept people and know what to do, right? Because I think that was the biggest thing. It's like everybody is like, "How do we prepare people to return home? How do we help people succeed?" It's about the individual and their success or their failure or their path. But one of our goals was just educating society about back to trauma, the trauma, the lack of resources, and just how hard it is. So it's about helping people return, but also helping society better prepare itself and prepare all of us to better understand these experiences.
Li: And even more intimately the families. Because one of the things I remembered so clearly is that even the families of these individuals had to make adjustments, had to have a deeper understanding of what these individuals were going through and how to be ready to accept them and make sure that they had the tools for themselves to deal because it wasn't an easy road for anyone.
El: That's a really good point, and I would add to that too is like you were saying about the education of the recidivism rate in which people go back to prison. I think one is that what struck me the most and which is probably still at the cornerstone of why I need to exist, is the fact of, it was like an introduction to people, to real conditions in which people live in, the environment. We look at it as three what we call subjects, in this case, myself as one or folks that we documented in the film that were sort of main subjects in the film. And the fourth was the community, the built environment. And that built environment is as toxic and quartered off from grander society as one could imagine. And again, even the most well-meaning folks just have no earthly idea how toxic it can be when you're quartered off.
And these [inaudible 00:22:00], and again, this is literally happening in a vacuum, but the decisions that are being made or even the thought around gun violence and all these different things, they're not made with the comprehension of cause and effect. They're not made with respect to understanding the true conditions in which people are under. So I can go on and on, but I'm just saying it's like that was the main sort of meat of it, was looking and how do we inform people? One thing is about the programs, other is like where's people coming back home to and those conditions and how do you expect them to actually survive and/or thrive based off of this information?
Li: So what's your lifeline? Where do you find hope and what keeps you doing this work?
Jon: Context. One of the things we've learned a lot in the past two years with “Pull of Gravity” and a lot of our other work, our work has always been around trauma in a lot of ways, but we didn't have the language and the vocabulary and the full understanding to have a full understanding of all that, right? In the past few years, we've learned this word vicarious trauma, and we've both experienced firsthand traumas in different ways, but then our work has been this collective experience of receiving so many other people's stories of trauma. And that takes a toll in itself, and especially hear stories of the first responders, therapists, all kinds of people have that do this work that is sort of parallel. It's a lot to take in these stories over years and years and years and years. All that to say, I would never take it back.
It's an honor and a privilege to do this work. We've sat with people in just the most trying situations in some of the hardest moments and the hardest situations. And it's an honor and a privilege to be trusted to do this work and to tell these stories and tell stories with people. I think like a lifeline, I think it's just the resilience of folks. And we've talked a lot about this word resilience, and it's a lot of times it's framed as this magical thing and it's like this positive thing, but resilience is a response to survival. Resilience is a response to horrible conditions. Resilience is a necessity. So yeah, resilience is great, but it's not really by choice. It's because you're placed into a situation, you have to adapt to it. So I think a lot of our work now, especially with Music Vets, is moving this direction of just breaking down these labels like that. And you can talk to the Bruce Perry analogy, but I'll pass it over to El for a minute and then we'll come back to maybe Music Vets, if that works.
El: That's interesting. I think, yeah, definitely agree with Jon. I think it has been traumatic, and I always talk about how it's actually in a lot of ways as for me, has been a sort of, it kind of kept me out of my own internalizing my own traumas too, or dealing with my own personal stuff until just recently. So yeah, so I feel like for a lot of times we looked at it as, and we see it as a sort of calling in a lot of ways and artistry that way, and just being with people and feeling like we're being a service. And I think that's whatever, but lifeline personally is my family, my babies. And I think that's huge. And that is a grounding, very regulating element in my life.
So like it or not, they're present and you can't get away from that. So it's like at the end of the day, and there's this doctor, Sandy Bloom, says trauma is the inability to be in the present. And I think as much as my mind wanders and I get into a zone, my daughter's looking at me and just putting this sticker on my forehead and just like I'm like, "That happened." So it really is grounding at a time and I feel like it's being with, so being with my family and getting healthy I think is the sort of lifeline that I find myself in now. And I think Covid had its own effects and the work on top of that, but I feel like that's my personal sort of lifeline that way.
Jon: Yeah. For me, it's similar. My daughter especially is just my life and just being with her and just seeing her grow and seeing her learn about the world and having her challenge me and push me and check me all the time is just, it's the most beautiful thing in the world and it's extremely grounding. And I think aside from that, we're going to talk about Music Vets eventually, but music has been a huge lifeline for me. Music and nature and somatic work, working with my body and just getting trauma out through physical stuff has been a huge lifeline for me.
Li: And here’s a clip from “Music Vets”. [ clip plays ]
Li: I want to talk about Music Vets. Can you share a little bit about that project and any connections that you might have seen or felt that you made with this community of survivors that might have connected to say, the communities in Pull of Gravity or other projects that you've done?
Jon: It's really interesting. We were approached by the board chair of a music school in Westchester, New York, the Music Conservatory of Westchester, who had heard of "Pull of Gravity", maybe I think had seen it. And he immediately saw the connection of people returning home from prison and people returning home from war. And they had a music therapy program and he was like, "Wow." Rodd Berro is his name, amazing, amazing guy, executive producer of our film Music Vets. And he said, "Wow, could we make a film that follows veterans coming back to society like Pull of Gravity through the lens of music and music therapy as their treatment?" Obviously different because in Pull of gravity, it wasn't really about treatment or recovery in that way or healing, it was more about stating the problem and getting a really interesting deep firsthand exposure to the environment and the human stories.
But with Music Vets, it was really interesting because we had this sort of solutions based avenue as well, this solutions based lens, which is, here's an issue, but here's how people are using music to deal with this issue and to heal. So the parallels were really interesting. For me, I was immediately drawn to the music aspect. I think El was more drawn to the veterans aspect, but together it's been a magical experience to just dive into the world of neither one of us are veterans, and that's very different from Pull of Gravity, obviously, because that was about El's own personal experience. Neither one of us are vets, so we just take a few steps back and humble ourselves and really do a lot of listening, a lot of learning, a lot of unlearning and reading and just spending time with people. We spent about a year, maybe a year and a half just meeting with people and getting to know them before we did any kind of filming, a lot of research before we started filming that project. And we started in 2017, and it's 2023, and it's just starting to have light. It's a hell of a process.
Li: Quite a process, right?
Li: You have to have stamina to be a filmmaker, right?
El: I mean, yeah, stamina and a lot of other things I think. And then especially something like that. And again, we always emphasize the point of just in these days, anyone with a camera is a filmmaker apparently. And that's cool and empowering for people to tell their story and all about that. At the same time, just understanding media and understanding unbridled approaches is really hurtful, could be hurtful and damaging to individuals. And again, our approach, and again, up until the point of doing Music Vets, we've done a lot of work. We do work all over the world all the time, and we've made mistakes and we learn from mistakes. And again, we do our best to learn and grow and be iterative in our process. So that's why we took that time during that. I mean, just for common sense, we don't know much about that topic as much at the time, so we just took that time to actually learn and grow.
And this is part of our process overall. And a lot of people may not necessarily do that. And I think even with that, just to be respectful to where someone is and the sort of knee-jerk reaction in creating content is the sensational whatever kind of approach. And our work is the opposite of that. And not necessarily intentionally anti-sensational, maybe it is, but just telling the human story is again, understanding media and understanding that how hurtful it could be. This is a permanent record. When people are documented, their kids are going to see this, forever. So you get somebody to talk about certain things that's really super personal, maybe that's not necessarily something that you want to live forever. And we try to encourage against or try to use our human approach to actually make sure people are aware of what we're doing and the impact. So not just from us, in the future, if somebody comes up and films them, like, understand the power of that too.
Jon: You see all these films and media and stories around veterans and PTSD, and it's usually there's this sort of style where it's like hyper-masculine, in your face showing explosions or people with injuries on camera. And we really try to take a different approach. And really, one thing about Pull of Gravity, we never asked or focused on in the film what led people to go to prison in the first place, because that was like the knee-jerk reaction. And with Music Vets, we never asked people, how did you get injured or how did you get PTSD or whatever. But things came out in the film in the process, but that was never the intention of creating this linear story of this happened and then this happened and this happened.
Because it's not like that. Healing is not linear. Healing is very non-linear in a lot of different ways. And it was just very important for us to not take that sort of knee-jerk approach, if you look at a lot of veterans films or issues around military, there's a style to it, and it's like the combat footage and things like that. And we had chose to use animations in the film instead of really showing any sort of footage like that. And it was a very intentional process. And then the music in the film too is also follows a very sort of soothing pathway, right?
Li: I saw a clip. It does come across that way, very much so, yeah.
Jon: Cool, cool, and so it was important for us to take the music that was played in the film by the veterans, and our composer Jesse Koolhaas from Amsterdam took the music and was able to integrate a score that basically blended their music with natural music that he was creating, so it flows, right? And it's intentionally not really any in your face, shocking stuff. There's some serious moments for sure. But we didn't want to have the film sort of lean into that direction of that sort of dramatic, overly dramatized sort of military culture kind of vibe at all.
Li: No, you're right. There is kind of a standard way of dealing with that material. And it's great to see that you have found a way, again, bringing it back to that, just trying to have a human connection with the folks and the stories that you're telling. So with the work that MING does, how do you decide you want to tell a particular story? What kind of things have to be in place for you to pursue a project?
Jon: That's an ever evolving thing?. I think there's a project we've done years ago that we wouldn't do now for sure because our standards have changed and our experiences have led us to not want to do certain sort of work that we've done a lot of work with philanthropy and foundations, and there's certain types of that work that we would not do anymore just because of the ethics involved and the power dynamic.
Li: That's growth, right?
Jon: It is, it is.
Li: Learning and growth.
Jon: Yeah, yeah, and it's not easy. It's like people think filmmaking can be lucrative and the way we do it, it's not always the case, right? It's very, very hard. It's like a six-year project, right? Music Vets. So we've turned down a lot of projects in the past few years that would've been maybe financially lucrative, but it didn't fit with our morals. There was a project last summer involving a big network that approached us about doing a project around juveniles in the system in Philly. And we turned it down because we've seen their work, it's a large network that everybody knows. I'm not going to state the name. And we knew that it was going to be sensational no matter what we did if we're handing off footage to a large network and it's about juveniles, we don't trust that relationship. So we turned that down.
And there's a lot of other examples like that where we just feel, you know, we've learned the hard way. And years ago, we would probably do things that we wouldn't do now, but we've definitely grown. It makes it hard sometimes. It's hard to sustain in this sort of pocket of filmmaking. We don't really do a lot of commercial stuff. There's not really any big checks for commercials at all, which are kind of quick and shorter term projects.
El: We do stuff for work in the sense of just, there's stuff that was just like, all right, it's a paycheck and it's a way to sort of pay some bills, but it's still ethical. And from our perspective, it's not hurtful. And if we're involved, we're just going to insist that certain things are done that way either way and push that boundary. And we feel like we can be a sort of [inaudible 00:35:12] that way. But I think even outside of that, despite the project and the contract kind of basis is it's standing the gap for the subjects and who would be documented or the people that in the subject matter and generally speaking.
So it's really negotiating and making sure that we have creative decision a lot of times and making sure that we have that sort of, so a lot of times it's less about just doing the work. A lot of times we've at a place where people bring us in as a partner on a project. So as opposed to just being a sort of point and shoot kind of situation. [inaudible 00:35:46] I think if we can look at this as this, as a partnership. That way, it gives us enough leeway to push back and say, "We're not going to," you know what I mean? We're going to have some curatorial sort of control that way.
Jon: And is it going to help? Is it push the needle? Is it going to help individuals? Is it going to benefit people in some way? Especially people that have maybe not had the opportunity to tell their story in this way. So, with Music Vets, I think one of the biggest successes for us is that the three main subjects of the film all love the film and embrace it.
Li: That's important.
Jon: And their families, that's the most important right thing for us because they've given us their stories, not just given their service to us in this country, but given their stories, which is, that's priceless. So I think that most importantly is do our subjects see a benefit for themselves or for a cause that they believe in? That's most important to us.
El: And building that relationship and maintaining those relationships even at all costs too, right? Sometimes there's a huge success in that too. I think those relationships are really important to us and our clients are important too. A lot of times we're really, to me, it speaks a lot of a partnership with a client that sees our value of what we bring and even our being standing firm on the side of the topic and the subjects or subject matter that they're willing to work with us and understand that we may have a position that be a better vantage point or a different vantage point than what they have too, to have the better outcome and can support or amplify, help amplify the voices of the subject.
Li: And what was it about Monument Lab projects that appealed to you? What were the ideas and the intentions that aligned between MING and Monument Lab that made that collaboration possible?
Jon: Yeah, great question. I think that's like El was just saying. I think when the values are there and they're aligned, we've been following their work for a number of years and paying attention and we loved what we saw and the opportunity came up to start working with them, I believe maybe end of 2020 on a small project with the state of New Jersey. And it was just very clear from the beginning that our values are aligned. We all know we're living a big lie in this country. A lot of big lies. There's a lot of myths and a lot of histories that have just been created and set in stone. And we know that those aren't true. There's so many different sides to this story of this country and the histories here that are just forgotten and intentionally not recorded in history. So I think a lot of our work is already naturally aligned with flipping this script and trying to tell real truths and alternative histories that are actually the real histories.
So I guess it was 2020, we started working daily. We had a small project and it involved three groups of artists in New Jersey that were retelling stories of the American Revolution through the lens of people of color. And there were three artists of color that did these short projects. And we made three short films with them. And right away, Monument Lab was just super receptive to our approach, and we were able to step outside the box. We were able to have creative freedom and it was just really impactful. And this felt like a natural connection, but when the values are aligned, it's very, very clear.
And then we've been doing some great work since on the Regeneration project and now Beyond Granite in the National Mall in Washington DC. So, I think it's just about knowing that the accepted mainstream history that we're all living and being told is not true, or there's a lot of forgotten or intentionally left out stories and that's why we're here. That's why we've been doing what we're doing, and it's great to just be aligned like that. Yeah, their work is incredible. It's amazing to see where it's come from and where it's at now and where it's going.
Li: If you could document any project or tell any story, what would it be? And think a little bit outside the box, maybe a departure from some of the projects that you've done in the past. This could be absolutely anything.
Jon: It's a hard question. I think for years I've been wanting to do something that doesn't involve something traumatic, right? Something that's just happy and fun-
Li: I can imagine that might be where you're leaning.
Jon: No, but I don't see that happening anytime soon, honestly. Just that I would love to be able to, you know, I think art and music and healing, healing through art and music and creative arts therapies. "Music Vets" opened up all these avenues for us of just getting to be on military bases and see veterans using music and getting to go to places where people were making masks and painting and all these different creative therapies and dance therapy and different sorts of alternative therapies. And it's just opened up all these doors of there's a million ways to heal. And in Western medicine, we really only look at a few as being legitimate.
But the truth is, society and all around the world, we've been using these ancient traditions to heal forever, right? And it's only in the past a hundred or 200 years we've been like, "Oh, take this pill or talk to this therapist or do this," and this is how you get better through this Western medicine framework. So I think personally, I'm really interested in looking at just different models of healing that are outside of the traditional Western medicine framework, but especially through music and dance and sound, I think. So really, really interested in doing more stories in that.
Li: In the arts.
Li: How about you, El?
El: Yeah, I don't know about a specific project. I think it's more about different processes. I think again, just the process of filmmaking sometimes can be really patriarchal and just very boiled down almost too much for my liking. And I feel like I really love telling a whole story or hearing a whole story as opposed to making a one-minute clip out of a one-hour conversation. And it's like the many people that we've documented over the years that's just not here anymore. I mean, just in "Pull of Gravity" alone, I think there's shame on me for not knowing, but I think there's 11 people I think maybe that we've documented in "Pull of Gravity" alone that's not here anymore, all to my knowledge by gun violence. And those were very personal relationships and very, very, very personal. So, seeing a short clip of something to me is just like, "Ugh."
I think figuring out a way to document or work on something that is more well-rounded. I think there's a power and actually story arc narrative of filmmaking, but actually encompassing more sort of experimental aspects of installations or something that actually helps tell a bigger story and engulf someone in a reality for a time to give justice to the story. But specifically, there was this interesting story I seen recently, Glenn Holsten, who came in and taught me film in prison. He worked on this film called "Wyeth" about Andrew Wyeth, the painter, and I live now in the Westchester area and out that way.
And I went to the museum finally the other day as a Brandywine River Museum. Very fascinating. And long story short, in the exhibition, they have this one thing about this artist who is also local named Horace Pippin. And it just blew me away to hear the story about Horace Pippin in the sense that Horace Pippin was just really quick not to bastardize his story or edit his story, but was in the self-taught artist, was in the army, was injured in the army, lost use of his right arm, which he was right armed.
Li: I didn't know that.
El: And he painted. How did he paint with his right arm? He learned painting as a therapy and he used his left arm to move his right arm to paint all the paintings that he painted.
Jon: Never knew that.
Li: Me neither.
El: I didn't know that either and he lived not far from where I live. And I'm just blown away by stories like that. And again, we're talking about resilience, but you're also talking about experiences and we're talking about in the 30s or 40s we're talking about folks that did it on that level, given all of the odds against them in that context of time and all of the dynamics that was happening then. So, I think that's a very fascinating story. Stories like that, that basically emphasize people's, again, resilience, but adding social sort of context to give another perspective of the environment in which they actually had to evolve and in a way they used art to do that. I think there's something fascinating in that for me.
Li: That is a fascinating story. And like I said, I work in the arts, I didn't know that about Horace Pippin, so thank you for educating me on that bit there. So, what's next for MING Media?
El: Evolution. No, it is always evolving. I think post Covid, a lot of things changed for everybody, and they gave us a lot of reasons to change and evolve, and that's where we are now. Even to work with Monument Lab, I think a lot of that is rooted in some of the evolution too, looking at, and it gives us the opportunity to spend time with stories from everybody, from indigenous experiences on a lot of levels, to being omnipresent with things that we've been bombarded with every day without knowing. So, all of our work basically evolves us in a way that would just, it gives us a moment to sort of pause and then decide and determine where we can apply that. So we have a number of cool projects on the horizon for clients coming to us now and stuff. So we're just growing and evolving. That's how I would say it. What'd you say, Jon?
Jon: Yeah, and just seeing how it's all so connected too. The more and more we grow and the work with Monument Lab has been just so beautiful and an amazing experience. Just for talking about some overlap, so I had the opportunity to travel to South Dakota in October for a Monument Lab project with Re:Gen and got to work with an amazing group there, the Rapid City Indian Boarding School project with Amy Sazue and her team. And I was welcomed with open arms as an outsider, and they told me right away, "We don't really trust people with cameras too much." And by the time I left, we were family and getting hugs and hanging out with people's families and kids and-
Li: Oh, that's beautiful.
Jon: ... It was beautiful. And just, it's such an honor and a privilege to be in that position, and it's humbling. It's really humbling. But one beautiful experience there, I went to the Black Hills pow wow when I was there, and the first 30 minutes of the entire pow wow, 30 minutes straight, maybe even an hour, the opening ceremony was honoring Native American veterans with music and dance. And then the connections just, wow, between "Music Vets" and Monument Lab and the work we've been doing and the amount, oh man, just the amount of connections.
Li: So many connections.
Jon: The statistics around Native American folks and indigenous folks in terms of incarceration. The numbers are out of control and they're high representation, the armed forces too. So, there's a lot of interesting connections and it's all starting to connect for us, all this different work. And there's an amazing story there, another one real quick is around this elder I met, Faith Spotted Eagle. She's incredible. She was one of the leaders of the Standing Rock protest in the Dakota Access Pipeline, and she was the first and only indigenous person to receive an electoral vote for president. And it's a whole story to look up. She's incredible.
She works with veterans at the VA in South Dakota and uses traditional ceremony music to work with native vets within the VA.
Jon: And so just the overlap here of just the work we're doing is just, it's monumental.
Li: It's monumental.
Jon: And it's beautiful. And again, it's an honor and a privilege and just so we're excited to see how these connections keep growing and the work keeps evolving between our personal experiences and our work history and where the future has taken us.
Li: Well, it has definitely been an honor and a privilege to sit here with you all. I just want to thank you for the awareness that you're bringing to all of these issues. It's super important, and I can't wait to see what comes next for MING Media. Thank you, Jon Kaufman and El Sawyer. It's been a pleasure.
Jon: Thank you.
El: Thank you, Li.
[ outro music played live in the RADIOKISMET studio by Jon Kaufman ]