Ameena Matthews (centre) is one of three CeaseFire workers in The Interrupters...
Inspired by Alex Kotlowitz's ("There Are No Children Here") article "Blocking The Transmission Of Violence", published in the New York Times in May 2008, Steve James' The Interrupters is a bold, present-tense documentary which chronicles 14 months in the life of three CeaseFire workers; Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra, whose own troubled histories afford them a unique position in the urban community. Founded in 2000 by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, who after returning from Somalia established his theory on violence as a social disease, CeaseFire was built as the cure to an epidemic which had spread from block to block throughout Chicago. In 2004 Slutkin hired a group of "violence interrupters", whose job it is to step into and diffuse conflicts before blood can be split (the YouTubed murder of 16-year-old Derrion Albert provides one of the film's most disturbing moments). What's evident from The Interrupters, which has been edited down from 340 hours of on-the-hoof footage, is that the disease mostly affects those under the age of 25, who will have served their first jail sentence before graduating from high school.
Lil' Mikey, a 17-year-old recently out of prison for armed robbery, is just one of those under 25's. Articulate, sensitive and family-oriented, Lil' Mikey raided a hairdressers when he was 14, receiving a three year sentence when he was caught for the crime. Who we observe through James' camera is not a criminal, but a misguided boy who wasn't able to correct the path he was set on. Bravely, he goes back to the hairdressers to apologize for his actions, moved to tears by the woman whose children he threatened during the robbery - an act she ultimately forgives him for. The scene of Lil' Mikey coming home to his younger siblings is also deeply touching; he holds them close to his heart, clearly thankful for being allowed another chance. The key to the success of James' film is that it does not judge its subjects, understanding that lectures and finger pointing won't change their mindset. Instead it supports CeaseFire, which works is because its employees have all been those kids; stood in those shoes and made the wrong decisions. Bocanegra served 14 years for murder, whereas Matthews is the daughter of Jeff "Angel" Fort, a Chicago gang leader who at one point controlled over 5,000 members.
Another focus of The Interrupters is "Flamo", whose short fuse has contributed to a number of local conflicts. His remedy to any situation is violence, and in one oddly humorous scene we see him unable to bend down and pick up his phone, through fear of the pistol wedged in his belt accidentally misfiring. Flamo calms down when he attends a CeaseFire meeting, and it's remarkable to observe how this hot-headed guy is also a keen listener, empathetic and intelligent. Eventually he fixes his ways, finding a job on tollbooth security. James does hit a false note with this conclusion, however, framing it as a definite reevaluation of self, whereas the lure of Flamo's old lifestyle still presents itself as an option. I admire the filmmaker for his dedication to finding the truth and his complete lack of vanity (not once are we made aware of a crew, and the film has no presenter), but in the end he slips a little too neatly into narrative conventions, finding simple answers to complex questions. Caprysha Anderson, another teenage offender, ends up back in a correctional institution, but James still frames her outcome optimistically, seemingly forgetting for a split-second the months of gang warfare he has so masterfully recorded, unflinchingly and without manipulation. This DVD release has been reduced in length from the 164-minute cinema cut; it now appears at 127. I fear that this problem may exist in both versions, but ultimately it matters little. What comes before it is brave, vital filmmaking, and the best documentary of the year.
Fantastic presentation by Dogwoof, whose DVD packaging is not only made from 100% sustainable materials, but is also space efficient and folds out to reveal information on the film/filmmakers. The disc boasts crisp, clear image and sound, and 70 minutes worth of extras - comprising the theatrical trailer and masses of (quality) deleted scenes. An essential release, especially for documentary fans.
The Interrupters is out on DVD now.