Film Review – The Interrupters
Steve James, the filmmaker who made one of the best American documentaries in Hoop Dreams (1994), has returned with yet another great, fascinating, and engaging film in The Interrupters (2011). This time, his story deals with urban and gang violence among the youth in Chicago neighborhoods, so prominent that it has recently received nationwide attention. In a way, this film is more urgent than his previous one, as the lives involved struggle every day just to survive. It’s a heartwrenching tale of a few brave souls who take it upon themselves to step deep into this world—a world that so many have chosen to turn away from—and do what they can to prevent further tragedy from happening. We get a glimpse into what life is like for these young individuals, we learn names and stories of those that would normally be represented only by statistics. And because of that, James has made a film that every single person should see.
I was surprised by how entrenched James and his crew became in their subject matter. The camera doesn’t just stand at a distance and watch events unfold like an outside observer, but instead dives in headfirst and becomes a part of what is happening on screen. There is a kind of intimacy at play where James puts us face-to-face with those in the film, not allowing us to feel safe at any particular moment. Characters know that they are being filmed, but somehow ignore that element to be who they really are. Subjects speak candidly about living on the streets, being influenced at a very young age by the lure of gangster culture, and how easy it is to become a part of that life. Danger is felt constantly throughout, among those who are creating the violence and those who are trying to stop it. Even James and his team put themselves in the line of fire. At an early point, a fight breaks out just outside the office that the crew is filming in. As they watch what is happening, they could have very easily been sucked into the commotion themselves.
The story revolves around members of an organization called CeaseFire, which believes that the spread of violence works much like that of an infectious disease, and which attempts to stop it as it’s happening. The organization’s members, known as Violence Interrupters, are courageous in their effort, but they do it because they know what it was like to grow up in those same neighborhoods. Many of the Violence Interrupters are ex-convicts, previous gangsters and drug dealers, who have killed people and spent a large portion of their time in jail. During one of their meetings, a member points out that among those present, nearly 500 years worth of prison time can be accounted for. They used to be reckless, immature, and violent. Now that they have become older, we can see how they have developed: wiser, regretful, tired of having to see the endless cycle of tragedy in their community. This is important, because they can use their experiences to get in touch with the young people that no other person can. The Violence Interrupters can connect with them through mutual understanding—they know what it means to be disrespected, angry, and full of hate. And they also know that those feelings can only lead toward sadness.
We follow a year in the life of the Violence Interrupters and the kids they try to help. It’s amazing how deeply we see these lives, how many of them are not bad people at all, but are simply products of the environments they grew up in. One young girl has trouble in school and constantly gets into fights, but when simply given a platform to speak her mind, it’s revealed that she is one whose childhood was taken away from her. Another young man can barely contain the anger inside of him when his home is broken into, but when an Interrupter allows him to vent his frustration and calm down, we learn that he knows the consequences if he allows his hate to get the best of him. Some kids push the Interrupters away, saying that all the speeches and talks they give don’t help when you’re confronted with a situation that can quickly breed violence. They have a good point—how can one simply walk away if that world is all they have come to understand? They know what is right and wrong, but in a world where living means surviving day to day, doing what’s right is not always the easiest thing. And that’s what makes the Violence Interrupters so critical: they can’t turn from these kids even if they are pushed away; they must remain as a positive aspect in their lives or else they will very quickly fall into the abyss.
What an emotional film this is. With many documentaries that deal with similar topics, we tend to see numbers, statistics, and pie charts, all displaying data that we understand but don’t necessarily connect with. While that certainly is a presence here, what James accomplishes extremely well is to take the film and make it on a much more personal level. The testimonies and insights that we learn of are highly emotional, and I was moved by how these people try to reach out, trying to ask for someone to help them. We get to know the people involved by name, and we follow their stories in surprising detail. Although the work of the Violence Interrupters doesn’t always reach out to every individual in the city (and we certainly see a number of examples of how tragedy is ever-present), it goes to show how important it is for them to connect with the people who are still around. They are there to show these kids that their lives are not lost, that they can believe that they will live past the age of thirty.
There is a moment in The Interrupters that left a lasting impression on me. A mural is shown with the names of all the people who have been victims of violence written on it. In the middle of it all is a small note, written in black marker. The note simply says, “I am next.” What a saddening thought to have, to believe that your life has a conclusion already predestined for you. CeaseFire and the Violence Interrupters are certainly not a cure for the issue; that goes far beyond the abilities of those involved, inhabiting politics, urban decay, class separation and cultural instability. But what they—as well as the film itself—do is present a glimpse of hope. That’s what I take away from this movie, that through all of the heartache and loss that people have experienced, there are those who push for positivity and a chance for a better life, even if it is by the smallest steps possible.
Final Grade: A+