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Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz on The Interrupters | Interview

At Sundance, we talk to Hoop Dreams director James and journalist Kotlowitz about their new documentary, The Interrupters.


At a Sundance marked by frenzied acquisition deals and breakout talents, Chicago filmmakers made vital contributions. Northwestern grad Maryam Keshavarz captured the audience award for Circumstance, an absorbing work about two sexually rebellious high-school girls set against the backdrop of Iran’s repressive social order. Mumblecore fixture (and sometime Chicagoan) Joe Swanberg made his festival debut with the wistful Uncle Kent.

But the film that staked the boldest claim to greatness was The Interrupters, the remarkable, riveting new documentary collaboration between director Steve James (in his sixth doc with Chicago-based Kartemquin Films) and cultural journalist Alex Kotlowitz.

The movie tracks the unstinting actions of three “violence interrupters,” former gang members and convicted felons who have rebuked gang culture. They now tirelessly monitor Chicago’s danger zones, from Englewood to Little Village, drawing on their own street credibility and cultivated sources to defuse violent encounters before they erupt.

The three principals are captured in quiet moments during direct-address interviews and shown vividly engaged in personal interactions. Their work is carried out under the auspices of the Chicago-based CeaseFire, an unorthodox organization founded in 1995 by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin.

Ameena Matthews, the daughter of the notorious El Rukn leader Jeff Fort, is absolutely fearless. At the film’s start, she calms down a butcher knife–wielding man upset because his cousin has been beaten by a rival group. Cobe Williams, whose father was murdered and who spent more than 14 years in prison, disarms people with his sly sense of humor. Eddie Bocanegra is the most haunted of the movie’s subjects. As a 17-year-old he killed a rival gang member. He now struggles to atone for past mistakes while making sure the high-risk offenders he encounters avoid a similar path. Tio Hardiman is the organization’s energetic director, whose charisma makes him a winning screen presence.

James and Kotlowitz both live in Oak Park and have been friends for a decade. James’s film Hoop Dreams and Kotlowitz’s book There Are No Children Here similarly concern class, race and the spiritual despair wrought by poverty. Two critical figures from Hoop Dreams, William Gates’s brother Curtis and Arthur Agee’s father Bo, were subsequently murdered.

Several people Kotlowitz wrote about have also been the victims of street crime. “I’ve lost three kids from the book to violence and another is serving time for murder,” he told us during an interview at Sundance, with James. “The one thing that hasn’t changed is that violence is consistent and stubborn.”

Kotlowitz learned about CeaseFire through a man with whom he played pick-up basketball games. When James read his friend’s May 2008 New York Times Magazine article on CeaseFire, the filmmaker immediately seized on its documentary potential. The 162-minute film was culled from more than 300 hours of footage shot over 14 months. The Interrupters synthesizes its makers’ two great talents: James’s aptitude for visual storytelling and Kotlowitz’s ability to get people to talk freely about their fears and aspirations.

“The key to vérité filmmaking is the intimate, authentic relationship with the subject,” James says. “What we wanted was to create an immersive experience for the audience, [the sense] that you are in these communities and that you know people in a novelistic way.”

Marked with a fatalistic edge worthy of a Fritz Lang film noir, the documentary ends with an emotionally charged moment in which Cobe convinces an associate, known as Flamo, of the destructive personal consequences of violent response. “You don’t just see Flamo on the porch. You see the wheels turning,” James says of an earlier scene. “He says, ‘I know I don’t want to be just another story of a guy either dead or in prison.’ Real mediation is about digging down deeper. Cobe and Ameena know you can stop them one day, but if you don’t dig deeper, they’ll just kill each other.”

The Interrupters will air on Frontline this fall. Theatrical distribution rights are still available.

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