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The Interrupters (2011)

August 27, 2011
produced by: Steve James, Alex Kotlowitz and Zak Piper
directed by Steve James & Alex Kotlowitz
125 min.
U.S. release date: January 22, 2011 (Sundance Film Festival and a variety of other festivals this year), August 12-25, 2011 & October 7-21, 2011 (Gene Siskel Film Center), and August 26, 2011 (ICE Chatham, ICE Lawndale & Wilmette as well as: L.A., Miami, Denver, Portland, Omaha & Bristol UK)
It happens every day. From a street fight in broad daylight over a five dollar bag of weed to a kid walking on the wrong street at the wrong time, violence erupts from the most unpredictable sources. Whether it’s cold-blooded murder or armed robbery, violence has (and will) remain a constant presence in just about every major city. But, that doesn’t mean it can’t be interrupted.
In the harrowing yet hopeful new documentary, “The Interrupters”, we are introduced to three individuals called “Violence Interrupters”, former perpetrators of such acts who are now compelled to make a difference in the Chicago neighborhoods they know so well. They are: Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra, all have compelling stories of their own, but what they do with their lives now is especially inspiring. For the lives they impact, they should be considered modern-day superheroes, but they would have none of that. 
Producer/director Steve James, who brought us another Chicago documentary, the acclaimed “Hoop Dreams” from 1991, returns to the same neighborhoods to focus on an anti-violence organization called CeaseFire. This is where these three amazing people work, and they became the subject of a 2008 New York Times Magazine article entitled Blocking theTransmission of Violence, written by Alex Kotlowitz, a friend of James and Oak Park neighbor. Having read Kotlowitz’s work, James was convinced there was worthy material for a doc there and the two begin working with local production studio Kartemquin Films in 2008. 
Starting in the summer of 2009, James were allowed to follow Ameena, Cobe, and Eddie for a year and watch them work. With a small guerilla crew consisting of himself, Kotlowitz and co-producer/sound recordist Zak Piper, James inevitably learned how affective these individuals are and what drives them. Their history is engrossing (all have done time) and has made them the charismatic characters that they are. Focusing on these three, “The Interrupters” becomes less about some group trying to clean up the streets and more a story of reformation and redemption. 
While filming, Chicago became a global hotspot for urban violence when on September 29, 2009, sixteen year-old Derrion Albert was brutally murdered in a street fight. The cell phone footage was shown everywhere, which earned visits by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, and (of course) the Rev. Jesse Jackson. After all the press conferences and interviews ended, the media found another flavor of the week, but the neighborhoods of Altgeld Gardens and The Ville were left with the emotional wake. 
James takes us along as we see the vibrant Ameena reach out to Derrion’s mother, comforting her and staying with her throughout her grieving. The daughter of former Woodlawn gang leader, Jeff Fort (currently serving out an 80 year sentence), Ameena was a drug enforcer back in the day. Having a family and embracing the Muslim faith provided grounded stability for Ameena, but she is known and respected everywhere she goes. She has seen the effects of an angry and hostile criminal life and knows that it doesn’t take much to light a short fuse. Therefore, she knows how and when to talk to anyone who she thinks needs to hear her. And they listen because her words are real. She has their attention because they know she’s lived their life and she gives them hard truths.  
It’s impossible not to be completely impressed and inspired by Ameena. She may be a veritable force of nature, but we still fear for her. Like when James shows her diving into the middle of a melee, seemingly unafraid and comes out nary a scratch. Or when she confronts a group of young man, challenging them to consider their responsibility for the future of those boys who look up to them. She talks hard to them and you can see that moment changing them, digging into who they are underneath all the hardness. 
As much as Ameena’s presence is dynamic and powerful, James does well to show the softer, more vulnerable side of her. We follow along as she and her husband throw their 8 year-old daughter a birthday party and a roller rink. We see her get in there with Caprysha,  a teenage girl she invests time in.  Treating her to a manicure her and laughing with her on a park bench, providing a semblance of normalcy in an otherwise tumultuous daily routine. Ameena probably sees her former self in this girl and earns even more of our respect as she becomes frustrated when Caprysha resorts to her harmful ways. 
While Ameena dominates the film, the other two Violence Interrupters have their own equally-compelling stories and watching them go about their work is just as inspiring. Growing up in Englewood, Cobe Williams had to deal with the murder of his father when he was 12 years-old, which found him involved in gangs resulting in frequent incarcerations. Today Cobe has a soft-spoken, easy-going presence that is automatically disarming to those he encounters. We see this in one particular scene where Cobe shows up at the home of a guy he previously me in County Jail. The tall and skinny restless fellow goes by Flamo, and when Cobe arrives with a partner, Rodney tk, he’s already quite worked up about the police showing up after they received a call about alleged gun use. Flamo wasn’t home at the time, but he shared that they allegedly handcuffed his mother and arrested his brother. 
Packing a pistol and clinging to a bottle of Hennesey, Flamo was all set to retaliate. But Cobe talks him down by simply just listening to him and eventually taking him out to dinner. Sometimes the best thing you can do for someone is give them your time. By the time the film ends we see how Flamo has benefited from the time and energy Cobe has invested in him. This is a guy who most likely would’ve been disregarded as a thug by anyone else. What James shows viewers in Cobe’s interaction with Flamo chips away at the image the media and entertainment embrace about life in the hood. It proves that beyond first impressions, people actually do want to change and given the opportunity to do so, they can.
Cobe is also seen in a couple other encounters that adds to the film’s many emotional moments. We see him helping out an old friend whose two teenage sons in rival “cliques”, and therefore are at odds with each other, which could have fatal results. Watching Cobe bring the two boys and their mom together is both intense and impressive. His frustration is evident, but so is his determination to see that this family has a future together. Then there’s Li’l Mikey, a teen who Cobe takes under his wing after his recent release from prison. Li’l Mikey is humbled by his past deeds and is eager to change his life. We see just how hard that is when Cobe takes him to the barber shop he once held up at gunpoint. The goal is to apologize and ask for forgiveness, and as the scene plays out we see how challenging the moment is for Li’l Mikey and the victims.  
Eddie Bocanegra served 14 years in prison from a murder he committed at the age of 17 in Little Village . Now a Violence Interrupter at age 34, works at giving back to his community in the same soft-spoken and patient manner that Cobe displays. We see him work with a family who had recently lost a young boy to random gunfire, especially the boy’s sister who held her brother in her arms as he died. He also helps out children at a community center by getting them to artistically express their fears and anxieties about their neighborhood. Most impacting though is when we see Eddie candidly open up as we see him take James and crew back to the block where he gunned down his victim. It serves as a poignant reminder where his motivation comes from as well as another example that people can change. 
Throughout the film, I grew increasingly impressed with the work that Cease Fire is doing. James introduces us to the organization’s  director, Tio Hardmian, who grew up on Chicago’s West Side, and founder, Dr. Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who spent time in Africa battling tuberculosis and AIDS. Hardmian sees violence as a “learned behavior” and shares, “we’ve been taught violence”,  and came up with the idea of Violence Interrupters. Slutkin brought the methods he knew to Chicago, treating violence as an infectious disease and fighting in a micro-level, making  a difference through one on one connections. 
Sitting there watching these true-life stories unfold before me, I found myself not only moved but also grateful that there are people out there like this. Like other cities I imagine, we are bombarded here in Chicago with daily news of gunshots (most often fatal) in the same areas that are then labeled as war zones. What is not reported are the individuals like those of Cease Fire, who are doing anything they can to change these areas, one person at a time. We don’t hear about them because they aren’t news. 
I’m glad that James and Kotlowitz, two older white guys, felt compelled to make a documentary about minorities helping their own, something moviegoers rarely see. Using a clean and smooth style (thanks to editor Aaron Wickenden), James excludes narration, choosing instead to use the Interrupters as tour guides and the audience as passengers. James does provide a heartbreaking memorial montage, showing us a variety of curbside locations outfitted with cards, stuffed animals, and candles. There’s even a wall in way where names of the dead are written, and the camera stops in the middle on an area that reads, “I am next”. 
For obvious reasons, I find “The Interrupters” to be important and necessary viewing and one of the best films of the year. I can easily see it winding up on my Top Ten list at the end of the year. When it was over, I immediately wanted to see it again, just to spend more time with Ameena, Cobe, and Eddie, to see how I can employ their approach with the young people in my life. These heroes prove that what it takes is a willingness to give of oneself and do something about what is plainly seen before them.  

RATING: ****

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