Michael Mirasol writes on Steve James’ powerful new documentary The Interrupters, currently screening at ACMI.
How would you feel if those dear to you become grave victims of someone else’s aggression? Angry for sure. But add this to a communal mix where opportunities are scarce, poverty abounds, and hostility is but a stone’s throw away; and what you have is a perpetual cycle of lost lives.
But how do we break that cycle? Gary Slutkin, epidemiologist and founder of Chicago’s CeaseFire, views violence as a disease, and believes that its transmission must be “interrupted.” His group of so-called Violence Interrupters is dispatched throughout the city’s impoverished hotspots, tasked to do just that.
They come from different ethnicities and beliefs: men and women, young and old. But these foot soldiers aren’t naive do-gooders. Most of them are ex-convicts and former gang members. Some have committed murder. “Man, we got over 500 years of prison time at this table,” one of them exclaims at a meeting. “That’s a lot of f***ing wisdom!”
So how and why do they do it? In the film The Interrupters, which chronicles CeaseFire’s efforts, we learn the answers through the eyes of seasoned veterans Tio Hardiman, Cobe Williams, Eddie Bocanegra, and Ameena Matthews. The film spends a year with them, witnessing their lives and the lives they help save. They do so without funding, police assistance, or protection, save for their words and their reputations. Tio says it best: “You have to immerse yourself in the bull****.”
There are many well-intentioned documentaries that deal with these kinds of tragedies. Those that fail tend to lecture, browbeat, or overburden us with victimization. What separates The Interrupters from its peers is how it is content to watch and listen. We see the dangers its subjects go through and feel the thanklessness of their tasks. We learn their part in the contagion, why they chose to end their cycles, and why they continue to persevere rather than simply escape.
Steve James, who directed the great documentary Hoop Dreams, has now helmed another masterpiece. It is not showy, gratuitous, sentimental, pointed, or predictable. But it skillfully uses the unmatched material of real life, and forms it into a visual rhythm that is impossible to ignore. And through its narrative, it teaches that if you want to believe in the goodness of your fellow man, you have to affirm that belief by embodying it yourself.
In one of the film’s more hopeful scenes, a mother who was once in fear of losing her children’s lives to her victimizer, embraces him.
“I hope (you’ll) be a better man, that’s all I’m saying.”
The Interrupter who helped make it happen looks on with a smile.
Michael is freelance film critic, video essayist and one of Roger Ebert’s Far Flung Correspondents.