The Interrupters (2011)

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Director, Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie and At the Death House Door), brings us his new documentary The Interrupters.  As the subtitle states, it shows ‘one year in the life of a city grappling with violence’.  Based in Chicago, a group called Ceasefire have a crew of ‘violence interrupters’, who make it their life’s mission to help clean up the city and get to the root of the violence by being a huge presence on the streets where the issues are happening.

The movie starts with audio clips of news reports about shootings and gang violence, set over images of families mourning their loved ones.  This already sets a tone for what we’re going to see and the uphill struggle that Ceasefire have on a daily basis.
This film follows three of the interrupters for a whole year.  We get to meet each of the interrupters as the story unfolds and our first is Ameena.  She is a very tough woman who has had a hard life, but managed to turn her life around and wants to pass this knowledge on to the people she sees wrecking their own lives.  She sees her old self reflected in these ‘gang bangers’ and tries her best to get into their heads to make things better.

The second violence interrupter we meet is Cobe, who has spent time in jail and has a great way of convincing people that they do not need to be violent or retaliate to other people’s threats.  He visits one particularly troublesome gentleman called Flamo, who doesn’t want to listen to anything Cobe has to say, until he offers to take him out to dinner to get Flamo to calm down.

The third interrupter we follow throughout the film is Eddie, who has previously been in prison for fourteen years for murder and has had a lot of time to think about his actions and ways in which he can turn his life around by helping steer other gang members away from the path he chose.

Ceasefire was founded by Gary Slutkin and the offices are right in the heart of the trouble.  During one of their meetings, a fight starts directly outside the offices, where these people are trying to organise peace talks.   This escalates to a bigger fight in minutes and it’s easy to see how this spirals downhill and leads to deaths.  They talk to the antagonists in this scuffle and eventually find out that the violence erupted from someone owing another person a $5 bag of weed and even a small issue like this could escalate to a shooting.

Over the course of the documentary, we get to know some of the perpetrators and how they transform from being violent, to someone who can talk on the same level as the interrupters and see things from their point of view.  One particularly poignant scene happens when a seventeen year old boy, fresh from serving two years in jail for armed robbery, visits the victims of his crime to apologise for what he had done.  This is very moving and is a big step forward for the boy who is willing to get a job and actually make something of his life now.

The violence interrupters are doing amazing work and are so brave to get in the middle of these fights to break them up.  All of them have been in the gang culture themselves, so know how to handle the situations and are savvy with the lingo.  These people have such a hard job, as it is difficult to change the views of someone who has been brought up in this culture, but as you can see from the epilogue, it can also be extremely rewarding.

The Interrupters is a moving insight into the violence and tragedies in the black communities of Chicago.  Although this is quite a long documentary, the running time flies by, as we follow the ups and downs of the enormous job at hand and we’re taken on an emotional roller coaster with the families affected and the people who want to put things right in their communities.
Inspired by Alex Kotlowitz’s article about Ceasefire and with such great source material as this, there is going to be room for a lot of extras, including interviews and extra scenes showing more work in the community and a UK equivalent of Ceasefire, which is also doing great work.
This would make a fantastic TV series to follow these people in their quest to right the wrongs of the city of Chicago.  It has won many awards at film festivals already and you can really see why.  A lot of time and effort has gone into making this documentary and it may get Steve James the recognition to go out and make more documentaries like this one.

The Interrupters will be released on DVD on 5th December 2011 by Dogwoof and is well worth a purchase.

DIRECTOR: STEVE JAMES
WRITER: ALEX KOTLOWITZ (ORIGINAL ARTICLE)
STARS: AMEENA MATTHEWS, COBE WILLIAMS, EDDIE BOCANEGRA, GARY SLUTKIN
RUNTIME: 125 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★½
DVD Rating: ★★★★☆

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