A surprisingly moving documentary collaboration between producer-director Steve James and producer Alex Kotlowitz, The Interrupters paradoxically succeeds because it refuses to soften reality. A look at people trying at the ground level to stop street violence in Chicago, it tears at your heart with its depiction of the intractability of the problem. But it simultaneously insists, and makes you believe, that change is possible one person at a time.
If the names of James and Kotlowitz are familiar, you know the kind of integrity they bring to their work. James was one of the directors of Hoop Dreams, that most memorable of documentaries, while Kotlowitz, the author of There Are No Children Here, wrote the magazine article this film is based on.
The organization that moved both men is a Chicago-based group called CeaseFire, which believes that violence is both learned behavior and akin to an infectious disease: People who give in to it infect other people. The goal is to stop violence at the source, the group motto a deceptively simple one: "Stop. Killing. People."
CeaseFire employs a small cadre it calls violence interrupters, individuals who have become expert at defusing incendiary situations. As Tio Hardiman, director of CeaseFire Illinois puts it: "We’re not trying to dismantle gangs. Our goal is to stop killings. We’re trying to save a life."
Needless to say, not just anyone can do this work, and when the interrupters succeed it is because they’ve been there themselves: They’re people with major street credibility who’ve lived the violent life and left it behind. As Hardiman says at one of the group’s large weekly meetings, "There’s over 500 years of prison time at this table. That’s a lot of wisdom."
The Interrupters focuses on three CeaseFire members, showing them not only working the streets but also spending off hours with family and friends. The trio:
Eddie Bocanegra, a quiet and almost preppy-looking artist who spent 14 of his 34 years in prison for a murder he committed when he was 17.
Ricardo "Cobe" Williams, a veteran of three stretches in prison, including convictions for drug-related charges and attempted murder. A genial, bear-like individual who now lives in the suburbs with his wife and children, Cobe can talk to anyone. Cobe’s interactions include trying to bring together two brothers from rival gangs whose mother worries, with reason, that they will kill each other. He also tries to calm a hot-headed prison acquaintance aptly named Flamo who is enraged after a misunderstanding led to police handcuffing his mother.
Ameena Matthews, a passionate, articulate, absolutely fearless and remarkable woman, she’s the closest thing to a star The Interrupters has. The daughter of Jeff Fort, the founder of the Blackstone Rangers and a legend in Chicago gang circles, Matthews stands up for young people because no one stood for her.
Gaining trust and getting close to these individuals and the intense situations they become involved in was no easy thing. Working with the smallest possible team — James, Kotlowitz and sound recordist Zak Piper — the filmmakers shot more than 300 hours of footage, which has been edited to just about two hours by James’ long-time collaborator Aaron Wickenden.
As with Hoop Dreams, filming people over time leads to some surprising results, but The Interrupters is too honest a film to pretend that all situations end with tidy resolutions. If there is a message here, especially as regards the young people who are the focus of CeaseFire’s efforts, it’s summed up in the title of the Solomon Burke song that plays over the closing credits: Don’t Give Up on Me This film not only asks that of us, it shows us why we should care.