The Interrupters (2011)

The success of Hoop Dreams, one of director Steve James’ early documentaries, is its ability to contextualize the story of its characters in the harsh realities of the urban intercity. The Interrupters makes that context that the central focus of the film as it deals with an unlikely group of individuals who seek to take back intercity Chicago from the gang violence that consumes it.

This group is known as The Violence Interrupters, composed of a number of ex-gang members and convicts who seek to diffuse volatile situations in the community that have a high potential to become violent. They do this by coming alongside individuals and show them that violence is not the answer to their problems. But sometimes this means sticking themselves in-between the middle of the potential firefight.

Steve James takes a step back and simply captures a lot of these tough situations. He’s not trying to find answers or resolve the problems in the film, he leaves that to The Violence Interrupters, but often they admit that the situation they’re put in has no easy answers and no clear way to proceed. It’s just as much of a struggle for the audience to understand what to make of some of these situations as it is for the Interrupters.

One of the recurring motifs is the cycles of violence perpetuated by the desire to avenge some wrong that has been done to the individual. Sometimes, these are acts of violence responding to other acts of violence, but some fights break out for petty problems, like boys arguing over five dollars or someone feeling their pride was attacked. The Violence Interrupters see this as endemic to a culture and mindset, but the annuls of history suggest that there could be an even more basic and innate problem to the cycles of violence.

The film chronicles this theme by following the efforts of three violence interrupters. There’s the assertive and driven Ameena Matthews, the laid-back and warm Cobe Williams and the soft and reserved Eddie Bocanegra. Each have different approaches to the way they deal with their situations as well as different paths through life that led to them being a Violence Interrupter.

The film’s ethnographic approach creates a seamless and natural feel to the film. Most of the information on the situation is firsthand, in the moment conversations from the interrupters themselves as opposed to voiceovers or after the fact interviews. It allows for an organic, frank and honest look the work these people are doing.

The greatest feat of The Interrupters is that it’s a politically charged film that never ends up preaching to the audience or attacking them to think or behave a certain way. The film captures the environment, crafts it into a story, and leaves it to the audience to make of it what they will.  This controlled detachment makes the film a much more powerful and engaging experience on a human level instead of a heavy-handed attempt to persuade audiences.

This doesn’t mean the film won’t make audiences want to do something, but that their desire to do something  doesn’t come from a place of creating persuasive arguments through tools of editing and exclusion, but from a frank and detached look at a tough situation with no easy solutions.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing