At the end of Steve James’s new masterpiece documentary three words are employed to thank the film’s characters—those who gave incredible, intimate access to their lives and work—for their “courage, candour and inspiration.” These are indeed fitting words for some of the bravest, most committed and selfless heroes ever to be shown on the screen. The film is The Interrupters and the heroes are the interrupters themselves – the courageous individuals in Chicago who interrupt cycles of violence in mostly black and latino youth circles. This documentary is nothing short of perfection. The 2 hour 42 minute opus from Kartemquin Films is an inspired political work that charts the difficult terrain of ethics and aesthetics with a poetic visual sensibility and charged respect for the subjects – and never loses site of the story.
Steve James (best known for directing the Academy Award-winning Hoop Dreams) told me that the name “The Interrupters” was chosen because it sounds like it could be a movie about superheroes. As it turns out, the film is indeed about superheroes, only these heroes do not have special powers or wear capes. They do however fight crime, intervening in cyclical socio-political tensions and problems as they percolate, before they escalate to crimes of violence. The interrupters are comprised of ex-offenders and their work with CeaseFire, a non-profit making the most from scarce resources, is dangerous, stressful, and impossibly challenging. This film champions their unsung efforts and ultimately reveals the life-changing (indeed society-changing) effect an individual can have at the most dire and volatile time of someone else’s life.
James told a packed Hot Docs theatre that the filmmakers, inspired by the interrupters, stopped asking the question “how can a person change?”. After spending a year documenting their interventions and mediations a different question emerged: “how can we help someone go back to who they really are?” The Interrupters shows, with gorgeous, confident cinematography, impeccable editing and a superb soundtrack, just how that process works.
From the beginning the audience is catapulted into perilous spaces as violence erupts between various youth. The teens and young adults fight because of personal disagreement, competing neighbourhood rivalries or as retaliation for previous murders and assaults. Arguments often escalate into violence and even murder, as is the case with Derrion Albert, captured on cell phone video in one of the neighbourhoods where the interrupters work.
In one scene in The Interrupters youth pick up stones and knives and face off until an interrupter, the incredibly inspirational, powerful and articulate Ameena Matthews (whose father is notorious gang leader Jeff Fort), inserts herself, whisking away a young male who is bleeding and whose adrenaline dial is set on high. Moments later she is with him at someone’s home, removed from the fight, laughing about how he looked like a cartoon character when he was hit in the face by the rock. “If we can get them to laugh about it, that’s a positive step” she says. The Interrupters is a film that guides us gracefully and uncompromisingly along a path of positive steps. These are the largely unknown steps toward treating violence as a behaviour problem connected to larger socio-political issues that leave under-priviliged and marginalized youths alienated, cynical, and indeed prone to violence.
The Interrupters is a gripping (mostly) observational documentary that produces intensely intimate spaces with vulnerable and volatile subjects but never feels intrusive or sensational. The filmmakers bring us close to the subjects without ever being invasive, and while the bold and steady camera work results in stunning cinematography, the violence and drama is not aesthecized nor normalized. It is a master work of social cinema that captures the urgency of the interrupters’ work as well as the dignity and courage of both those intervening in the violence and those embroiled in it.
This was the best film that I had the pleasure to see at Hot Docs, and it will hopefully find its rightful position in the documentary canon as one of the most committed, inspired and important works in the history of the genre. Steve James, working with Alex Kotlowitz, has made a film that is lightyears away from mere documentation of a social problem. The Interrupters is an audacious socio-political portrait of gifted and dedicated people who are changing society and in the process are changing the way society views the widespread problem of inner city violence.
While monuments commemorating the impassioned and exhausting work of the interrupters should be erected throughout America, The Interrupters documentary is a kind of monument itself – one that should be placed in every library, broadcast on every television and projected in every theatre in the country. In short, it is a documentary that is honest, courageous and inspirational storytelling.