Under Review: ‘The Interrupters’


In the first six months of 2010, Chicago had 217 murders, mostly of youth by youth. At a town hall, the mayor announced the National Guard was available to intervene. The audience members passionately spoke about wanting to solve their own neighbor problems with gang violence from the inside. Violence Interrupters became an answer.

After completing five film reviews from Asia and the Subcontinent, I found it disconcerting to watch an American documentary where it was more difficult to understand the dialogue and more confusing to understand the culture than the foreign works I had been studying.

This film was shot in Chicago. Shot is the operative term. Filmed throughout 2010, “The Interrupters” documents “one year in a city grappling with violence.” The only negative thing I can say is that the film needs more subtitles. Every word is important.

The idea behind Violence Interrupters comes from Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist and physician at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He formed Ceasefire, a community organization dedicated to stopping the spread of community violence. From his work on public health projects in both America and sub-Saharan Africa, he calls the kind of violence he sees in America a great diseases. He thinks of it as an invader organism whose transmission needs to be interrupted. Taking that term, Tio Hardiman created and now heads up the Violence Interrupters arm of the Ceasefire program.

Violence Interrupters come from the hierarchy in gangs who perpetuate the conflicts that make life unsafe, primarily for people in their own neighborhoods and schools. Most have served time. Beautiful Ameena Mathews was brought up routinely beaten and sexually abused. She speaks about her prior life involved with a drug gang and explains that working in this job is “looking the Devil face to face.”

We see her in an initial contact with a heavy high school girl who has brought a butcher knife to gain revenge in a street conflict. The film allows us to follow the development of their relationship. The camera catches her counseling, the girl’s refusal to be helped and her eventual incarceration.

Key to Mathews’ approach is her ability to form relationships with her clients. She can enter a gang of teenage boys and de-escalate their anger — admittedly probably first through her stunning good looks. But after that flash, they see that she speaks their language and that she fervently cares about her mission — nonviolence.

Steve James, the producer/director, is the Oscar-winning director/producer of “Hoop Dreams.” His talent is taking doc footage over time and creating a story reflecting a vignette of a sub-culture. In “The Interrupters,” he revisits some of the same neighborhoods from “Hoop Dreams,” showing that the earlier problems there have only escalated. He lets the situation tell the story.

Several Violence Interrupters are followed in James’ doc. They are all from a challenging past with extraordinary recoveries.

“The Interrupters” is currently basking in a popular opening month playing at theatres around the country, including at The Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Ore.

Production Notes

Producer, Director, Director of Photography and Editor: Steve James
Producers: James and Alex Kotlowitz
Release: Aug. 12, 2011

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