Directed by Steve James
Documentary films are an interesting bag. Things like The History Channel and news networks are massively popular but when it comes to feature length documentaries, far fewer people find themselves well versed in the genre. I would venture a guess that that is because the majority of people who go out to the theater or stay in with a movie for the night are seeking escape from real life. Sometimes that does include sad movies, and even those that are based on real events. But at the end of the day even those movies have actors pretending in front of the screen. Knowing that a film is real, and even more that those on screen are real, going through their actual lives, can have a devastating impact, especially when those people, those lives, and those situations are as startling as the ones in The Interrupters.
Steve James made a major impact in the documentary world with his 1993 film Hoop Dreams, which chronicled the lives of two high school basketball players in Chicago. James stays in the battle ground of Chicago for his latest documentary, which follows the Violence Interrupters of Chicago more volatile neighborhoods. The interrupters, which include Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra, belong to the organization called Cease Fire, which campaigns on the streets of Chicago for non-violence in the resolution of conflict, most notably between gangs. Chicago is one of the most deadly turfs in America, especially when it comes to young kids whose lives either go nowhere, or end altogether.
I guess the best way to begin would be to say that these people are now my own personal heroes. The film, which covers the circumstances found in these troubled neighborhoods is gut wrenching to witness, but at the end of the day the film is titled The Interrupters. It is about these people as much if not more than it is about the countless people who are killed every week in Chicago. Ameena, Cobe and Eddie are unique in their own ways, but each are cut from the same cloth, and that is one of a lifetime of violence in a world where dreams hardly ever to come true. Each were involved with the violence they are now trying to prevent. Cobe served time, and Eddie served 14 years for murder. It is their stories which give hope to the ones around them.
James and his crew spent a whole year following these remarkable people and for every incident they were able to successfully intervene, there are seemingly dozens of others they cannot quite get to, including the murder of more than a couple young people. It is harrowing to witness such circumstances, and difficult to envision a successful outcome for these residents, but I will be darned if the interrupters do not give it their all to do everything in their power to help make it happen. Ameena Matthews is a stronger, more determined woman than I have ever seen. This is a film that really helps to show what the problem is. The comparison it makes between violence and a disease is apt. Violence is a learned behavior and living in a neighborhood where jobs are nearly impossible to come by, it can become a disease, not a choice.
Knowing that the film is factual, that these people are real human beings makes it that more effective. The key to a good documentary is a string subject matter and this one is moving to the point of tears, tears of sorrow, but also those of joy and hope for the strength of the human spirit shown by these wonderful people. But the key to a great documentary lies in how its director is able to piece it all together and Steve James is that man, knowing exactly when to reveal to the audience each piece of the puzzle. We learn about the current for these interrupters before we learn about their past, which makes their determination and attitudes that much more impactful. The Interrupters is a great American documentary and almost certainly a lock for a nomination at this years Academy Awards, but what is more is that it is also a great American film which explores the many facets of the difficulty of living in a troubled Chicago neighborhood with no outlook up or out.