Filmmaker Fridays: Ryan Simon

Introducing Ryan Simon, director of the documentary THE BLACK JACKET. Ryan began his career at a marketing agency producing and developing branded content. Years later, he created his very own production company called Strike Anywhere. Ryan spoke to us about his work and why he decided to film this particaular subject.

1. How did you discover Aquil’s work? What made you want to film this type of subject?

I was hired by an umbrella non-profit to create a short documentary film to help them raise funds for non-profits working on gang intervention and community rebuilding in South Central Los Angeles. The Professional Community Intervention Training Institute (Aquil’s program) was one of the non-profits that received funding from the umbrella group. During the short film, I was able to interview and observe numerous non-profits doing incredible work in South Central LA, but Aquil’s stood out to me. For one, he was attempting to professionalize intervention work, that is something that has never been done before in any city. His class was a true center for anyone and everyone interested in bettering South Central, every bit of information and positive momentum seemed to flow through his organization one way or another. They are the real deal.

The reason I wanted to make this film is twofold. First, while I was filming the short doc piece, Stacy Peralta’s ‘Made in America’ came out. I thought the documentary was strong on so many levels, but it bugged me that the film only spent five minutes on potential solutions to the cyclical problem of gang violence. I used that as a catalyst to push the feature proposal forward. From my point of view, we’d now seen enough historical films about gangs in America, now it was time to focus in on people like Aquil who were working tirelessly to change lives for the better amidst storied gang communities. Second, I had seen nothing like what Aquil and his class were doing; it was truly electric. Individuals were showing up in the middle of a work week on their own accord, not getting paid, and gathering together to get trained as a community unit. Once I understood their work and the value of it, my goal was to make a film that would capture their work in enough detail so that we could provide context, inspiration, and a jumping off point for people to take action in South Central. Aquil’s program could not become a paragraph in a history book, it needed to be captured as a living breathing example of positive community work.

2. Where there any difficulties you and your team encountered during and/or after filming?

Day to day life operates with a different set of rules in South Central LA neighborhoods, so it was really about spending time on the ground without cameras, learning those rules and building relationships in different neighborhoods. There were some difficult days and nights of filming but Aquil and his graduates are extremely disciplined and vetted, so we always felt safe working with them. The hardest part of making the film was getting the calls, texts and emails about people we filmed with who lost someone or finding out that someone we filmed had died due to gang violence. It was heartbreaking and continued to happen far too often. I can only hope that this film continues to spark dialogue and action to help reduce these unnecessary deaths.

3. What is the most striking thing you’ve learned about gang intervention? Is there one moment while filming that struck you in particular?

Intervention has to happen 24/7. Violence occurs in a split second but the work of Aquil and his graduates never ends. Even when a community might be appear to be peace, work is happening behind the scenes to mediate situations that never surface. Beyond that education, job programs, food programs, female support groups and a variety of youth engagement programs are all part of the interventionists’ work. Building infrastructure and support systems into besieged communities are even more important to bettering the lives of local residents, even more so than diffusing a violent gang situation.

4. Has your background in branded content influenced your approach to the film?

Brand work allows you to flex different visual and storytelling muscles. It also allows you to build up relationships with crew, vendors and post production support that makes independent films possible. I could not have made this film without the support of my production company, my amazing crew and fantastic production and post teams that I’ve built working relationships with. My documentary studies had more of an impact on the approach to the film, but my brand content work had a true impact on getting the work done.

5. What do you hope viewers take away from the film?

My hope is that this film brings attention to hurdles and triumphs of professional intervention work so that change can happen both in the short and long term in South Central Los Angeles and other communities with ongoing violence. Beyond that, my hope is that this film becomes something we can use to inspire others to look around them, dig in, and create change in their communities.

The more I worked on the film, the more I realized the difficulties of the work Aquil and his team do, day in and day out with little support and acknowledgement. Yet, they still show up every day to improve themselves and their communities. They believe in change from the inside out, not the outside in. That is the key to a sustainable future and I firmly believe it after seeing it in action. That being said, their work and these communities still need our support to continue forward.

Taking a step further, I see this as a film about the power of personal transformation. Graduates from the program walk away with a broad set of universal skills to reduce violence and rebuild communities, but they also learn something unique and specific about themselves that turns them into agents for change in their homes, workplaces, neighborhoods, and cities.

This is something we can all tap into, a chance for universal change. In our current climate where problems seem ever present and ever growing, we are rarely given a chance to take a breath and think about all of the positive work people are doing to solve these problems. As Aquil says “It’s on you!”

Watch The Black Jacket on iTunes.