Sundance 2011 Review: THE INTERRUPTERS

Brian Kelley

by: Brian Kelley
January 23rd, 2011

Rating: 5/5

Produced by: Alex KotlowitzSteve James
Directed by: Steve James

"Words will get you killed."

When Ameena Matthews, one of the titular figures in Steve James' (HOOP DREAMS, STEVIE) new documentary THE INTERRUPTERS, utters the words above - referencing and refuting the old "sticks and stones" adage - she cuts to the heart of the film very early on. Through the course of the sprawling 162-minute documentary, the audience learns to recognize the enormous egos the gang members and other street thugs featured have built around themselves. The reasons for the vehement protection of this pride are various, usually stemming from poor quality of upbringing, abandonment issues, desperation, and/or loss of hope. When this self-worth is threatened by words, as it usually is when clashes first begin, things can quickly escalate into bloodshed and death. Fortunately, a group of ex-gang members have banded together to help keep the violent endgame from occurring in the streets.

THE INTERRUPTERS, inspired by a NY Times Magazine article written by producer and acclaimed author Alex Kotlowitz, spends a year with a group of people who work for CeaseFire in Chicago, an organization founded in 1995 focusing on preventing shootings in the streets. They do not actively seek to remove individuals from gangs or rehabilitate drug users, they simply want to stop scuffles from turning into murders. Three specific members of the "violence interrupters" are profiled - Ameena Matthews (daughter of notorious gang leader Jeff Fort), Cobe William (a man who lost his father to violence and followed a path took him to prison several times), and Eddie Bocanegra (a convicted murderer looking for redemption) - as well as their boss, Tio Hardiman, Director for CeaseFire Illinois and also a former street thug. Each member is extremely candid about their pasts, the crimes they committed laid out for judgement. It's this forthrightness that immediately endears the subjects to the audience.

As James' film unfolds, a few of the team's cases are highlighted. There is a young girl who has grown up in several homes and is now the only female in a house full of violent teens; a worried mother whose two sons roll in different, incompatible circles (the risk to her is so great she has a secret apartment to hide in); a recently released 19-year-old who was convicted of robbery and now wishes to apologize to those he robbed; a man armed and out for revenge; and many more. Each story is deeply affecting, regardless of the circumstances. One begins to sympathize with those caught up in an epidemic of violence, these people grew up surrounded by it and it is all they know. The ups-and-downs of each story provide an emotional weight most works of fiction can only hope to obtain. Real moments of fear come from seeing just how quickly tempers can flair, the audience knows the very real potential endgame if such quarrels are not hastily quashed. Other moments are devastating such as in a section of the film showing memorials to innocent children gunned down in their neighborhoods. Simply calling THE INTERRUPTERS powerful would be a gross understatement.

Much will be discussed about the film's length, at a whopping two hours and forty minutes it may be a barrier to entry for some. It should not be, though, as there is not a second in THE INTERRUPTERS that is anything even remotely less than riveting. The time is necessary to build understanding, in order for the audience to feel compassion for people perfectly capable of murder they must first learn about the circumstances that led them there. It proves to be a excellent tactic as, even though an epilogue is provided, a crushing sadness is likely to wash over those yearning to know where these subjects' lives will go. There is a sense of hope as the credits roll, but also a uneasy feeling of dread as throughout the film starling numbers (a dozen or more shootings on some nights) pop-up. The work the interrupters do is a drop in an impossibly large bucket.

There is a point in the film where CeaseFire founder and Executive Director Gary Slutkin, M.D. discusses his history as an epidemiologist. Like other communicative diseases, he explains, violence will not be completely eradicated through use of "antibiotics", behaviors (namely the propensity for using brute force as a response to grievances like the potentially deadly words mentioned by Ameena) that allow it to spread must be changed. While the metaphor is apt for his approach to the problems in Chicago and beyond, by the time THE INTERRUPTERS ends it has been expanded and redefined. After witnessing some of the success stories in the film, it appears a balance of compassion and understanding bred of living the kind of life that must be changed is a medication as revolutionary and effective as Penicillin.

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