THE INTERRUPTERS is a poignant, engaging look at a group of Chicagoans looking to curb the violence plaguing their city. Tracing a year in the life of this group, the film details with stark clarity the lives of a community beset by ongoing cycles of retribution.
We follow a group of “Interrupters”, former gang members who are members of CeaseFire, an organization tasked with providing a form of mediation to try and prevent the escalation from argument to physical violence. Spearheaded by an epidemiologist Dr. Gary Slutkin, the group tries to help eradicate the cycle of retribution through community outreach and direct access to those most affected, much like any other form of disease prevention. With astonishing access to the community, with all its complexity, the film provides a unique window into both the process and spirit of the work being accomplished.
Over the year, we follow three extraordinary Interrupters as they directly engage with their neighbours. Each has their own history to bare, and it is the genuine way that they’ve turned their own lives around that drives the heart of this film. Cobe Williams is a big, gregarious man – we see one of his biggest challenges being the bringing together of a working mom with her estranged sons, two teenagers that live under the same roof but run with opposing gangs. Eddie Bocanegra is shown providing art to school youngsters and helping the family of a slain young boy, all while dealing with his own memories of the murder he committed and served time for.
Perhaps the most extraordinary character is Ameena Matthews, a seemingly fearless woman who is the daughter of a notorious gangleader. Tracing her past as club girl and convicted drug runner, it’s all the most astonishing to see her engage with those running into trouble. She comes across as a veritable force of nature, confronting and challenging those in her community with the sternness only a mother can provide. From stepping into a fight early on in the documentary, to providing guidance to some in need, she could easily come across as some pious, sanctimonious figure. Instead, her rough edges are often brought to the fore, making her involvement in the project (and the film itself) even more effective. Her mix of genuine caring with no-bullshit prose is the heart of film.
It is often tedious to hear the ramblings of a convert, the sudden euphoria they feel of a changed life as they evangelically try to convince you to change your ways as well. While each Interrupter has themselves lived a life of violence, there’s no sense of over inflated ego or wide-eyed crusade as they engage in these new challenges. They know more than anyone the forces they are confronting, the hardness of those that they engage with, and it’s the effectiveness of their methodology that this film documents. These Interrupters are embedded in a community that has been for generations deprived of strong role models, with many raised with parents, grandparents and other family members engaged in criminal violence. By providing a mechanism for arbitration or guidance without judgement, CeaseFire has been proven to be extraordinarily successful in reducing violent confrontations.
As a film, THE INTERRUPTERS shows us a world often glimpsed as as mere statistics. The documentary is effective at capturing a nuanced, rounded view of both the members of the community and those members of CeasFire that engage with them. Certain prejudices are questioned throughout, and we’re left with a genuine sense of hope that this procedure really can help stem the tide of horrendous violence. While there’s little cynical about the film, it never sways into propaganda for the project. We see success as readily as failure, we see the CeaseFire members lose their objectivity at times, and cases that simply will never be cured through mediation. We are drawn into these stories, and when we see things that in other narratives would be solved quickly and conveniently, this film lays bare the actual events, awkwardness, failures and all.
This film explores the real life American inner city struggles that made THE WIRE such an extraordinary achievement in fiction (the subtitle of the film, “one year in the life of a city grappling with violence” also recalls the stark journalism of David Simon’s “Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets”). The documentary provides a look into a world often dwarfed by the Magnificent Mile, strange metallic reflecting beans and the other elements that make up the public face of the tourist’s Chicago. EThe film suffers from some pacing issues (despite being cut down from its Sundance/HotDocs running time), and its scope and tone might put off some casual viewers. Minor gripes aside, THE INTERRUPTERS is quite an achievement, an important contribution to the documentary landscape with characters and situations not soon to be forgotten.