Steve James directed one of my favorite documentaries of all time, 1994’s Hoop Dreams. The Interrupters is stylistically similar, and James is able to work some kind of magic with his subjects to gain such a deep level of their trust and obtain the footage that he does, completely honest and lacking in self-consciousness.
The Interrupters explores the violence around the streets of Chicago and the work of a group called CeaseFire, founded by Gary Slutkin and currently run by Tio Hardiman. CeaseFire employs ex-convicts and ex-gang members as “violence interrupters” who try to stop escalating violence through mediation, based on Slutkin’s theory that the current outbreak of urban violence functions and spreads like an infectious disease, and so the most effective treatment is to target the spread of the infection rather than to worry about casting blame. CeaseFire doesn’t exist to break up gangs or to inform to the police; their sole goal is simply to stop the escalation of violence and the spread of killing, one person at a time.
The Interrupters focuses on three employees working for CeaseFire, Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra. Ameena Matthews is the daughter of Jeff Fort, one of Chicago’s most infamous gang leaders. As a teenager, Ameena fell into gang life as well. But before she was completely swallowed by it, she got out and has subsequently found new purpose in the Muslim faith and her responsibilities to her husband and children. Cobe Williams, living in the shadows of the murder of his father, served a long prison term following his own involvement with gangs and an attempted murder charge, but wanting to be a responsible father to his young son helped him find his way after his release. And Eddie Bocanegra, who went to prison for murder, now works for CeaseFire knowing that the only way he can make up for what he did to his victim and his victim’s family is to do it indirectly by helping others.
Throughout the course of The Interrupters, we see Ameena counsel the mother of Derrion Albert through the aftermath of her son’s brutal murder, which made national news after his being beaten to death was videotaped and posted on youtube. She also befriends a girl still in high school who has been in and out of prison, has a junkie mother, and is struggling to find a purpose and a path forward. Cobe Williams tries to help reunite a mother with her two sons, assist a boy trying to go straight after serving prison time for the armed robbery of a barber shop, and intervenes in the life of a guy on the brink of retaliation following his brother’s murder. Eddie Bocanegra, who discovered art and painting in prison, works with several kids’ groups teaching art as a tool for communication about the street violence in their lives, and in the process befriends a girl whose young brother was shot and who died in her arms. The family still visits his grave daily.
What made Hoop Dreams such an amazing documentary was its honesty and the way it subverted the expectations we bring with us as an audience. Because this is real life, things never play out the way we might expect them to. Someone who might seem to have it made could inevitably sabotage their own future out of ego, complacency, or a sense of self-privilege. And someone else who refuses to give up might find more success than anyone could have thought. The Interrupters is cut from similar cloth. Just when you might count someone out, they’ll do something human to surprise us, and prove that all of the patience and time spent with them was worth it after all. At the same time, this isn’t Hollywood fiction, and sometimes human nature works the opposite way, and try as someone might, there’s simply no way to help someone who’s not ready to be helped or able to help themselves. In fact, that reality is part of the day-to-day struggles of the violence interrupters, who know that sometimes they’re not going to be able to help people, that their work will be in vain and they have to try to resolve themselves to the frustrations of it all.
The methodology behind CeaseFire is simple: get people who have lived the life, who can come into an escalating conflict and who people will listen to and respect because they’ve already been there. Let their subjects talk, let them vent; listen to them. Often what’s most needed at the beginning is for their voices to be heard. Then sit with them, let them work through their grievances, and keep bringing it back to what they have to live for, their families, and how escalating the violence can only lead to more turmoil and tragedy.
The kind of violence pervading the communities that CeaseFire deals with doesn’t really have anything to do with crime or drug running or gang wars; it’s much simpler than that. It’s the endless cycle of violence between people boxed into an economic corner with few opportunities available to them, who are already operating from an instinctual place of fight or flight, and who are then physically threatened in some small way. Many of these altercations are simple and about basic things– someone who owes someone else $5, or the wrong insult hurled; but once the fuse is lit the escalation bounces back and forth until it erupts in physical violence, and then it bounces back and forth some more as the bodies pile up.
The Interrupters is equally about the stories of the violence interrupters themselves, Ameena, Cobe, and Eddie, and the stories of the people and the families they’re trying to assist. It’s a wide net, but the film benefits far more than it would if it were either only about the interrupters or only about their work in the community. And the miraculously honest footage James gets makes it consistently fascinating. The Interrupters is an extremely important film, and it’s a shame that it didn’t get an Academy Award nomination. Yet, it’s also a frustrating film on some levels, because it does reflect reality and there aren’t always easy answers or resolved story threads. Some of the stories end with a sense of hope, but some of them end in a middle that we don’t know will ever reach an end. It makes you want more, makes you want a network to pick something like this up and run it as an ongoing series where it could reach a lot more people and have a much larger positive effect. Instead we get The Bachelor and Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of Wherever.