Story and craft in The Interrupters

Earlier this week I watched a sold-out showing of The Interrupters, the new documentary produced by Steve James (director of Hoop Dreams) and Northwestern MA/MFA faculty member Alex Kotlowitz (author of There Are No Children Here). The film is showing through August 25 at the Siskel Film Center here in Chicago.

The Interrupters are a confict-mediation branch of CeaseFire. CeaseFire was founded in 1995 by Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist in Chicago. Slutkin’s concept, developed after his work with the World Health Organization fighting infectious diseases, is that violence is a public health issue, like an epidemic. Blame and punishment are not the solution. Violence, he states, is a learned behavior that can be prevented.

Each of the Interrupters in the film describes his or her own history of involvement with gangs, crime, and violence. Knowing well the hardscrabble life of Chicago’s streets, they are uniquely skilled to identify and intervene in high-risk situations. Their focus is not to break up gangs, nor do they believe gangs are the source of all violence in our city. Their singular mission is to be present to intervene in scenes where violence is likely to occur. They develop relationships and ongoing involvement in the lives of persons affected by violence. The Interrupters work to stop gunfire and killing one incident at a time.

On the night I viewed the film, two of the Interrupters attended and answered questions from the audience afterward. Cobe Williams spoke about balancing his own family life with his long hours of dedication to his work. Ameena Matthews described her work as “a conversation to action; a call to action, to me.” They were as inspiring in person as on camera.

Also in attendance were Slutkin, Kotlowitz, and Zak Piper, co-producer. Piper noted that the film will be shown in Chicago Public Schools and elsewhere in the community. Slutkin mentioned that CeaseFire is funded by our state budget, specifically the Department of Corrections, as well as private foundations, but it also operates in 15 other cities and five countries.

Kotlowitz made several comments on filmmaking decisions. Early on, the team emphasized that they were not making reality TV. They limited the amount of the time in the film dedicated to actual interruption scenes. An audience member asked whether the film risks oversimplifying the issues. Indeed, the filmmakers chose not to explore political or historical material about violence and race in Chicago. Kotlowitz’ reply was a convincing, “No.” "To the contrary," he explained; portraying in detail the lives and stories of the individuals involved is exactly what plumbs the complexity of the issues. The interviewers are invisible as the subjects talk about themselves and their work. As other students in Kotlowitz’ workshops will recall, he stressed this approach in class and we are rewarded to see its success in action in this film.

There is good news if you can’t get a ticket for this run of the film. It will be returning to the Siskel Film Center from October 14-20. The two-hour documentary is a lot to absorb and many of us will be just about ready to take another look at it by then.

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