Thursday Editor’s Pick: The Interrupters (2010)

by on January 5, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thurs Jan 12 at 8:00* at IFC Center [Program & Tix]

*Director Steve James in-person


Stranger Than Fiction” has been revisiting some of the year’s Oscar contender documentaries at IFC Center. Up last is Hoop Dreams director Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz’s The Interrupters, which James will present in its latest theatrical release version (162 minutes edited down to 126) in-person.


Dana Stevens for Slate:

The Interrupters, a documentary about an initiative to stop urban violence in Chicago, may be the most necessary film you’ll see this year. But if you go to the movies in search of emotion rather than edification, don’t let that word necessary deter you, because this is also one of the most engaging films you’ll see this year, full of vibrant, complex real-life characters whose troubles and joys will stay with you long after the movie’s done.


Richard Brody for the New Yorker:

Steve James’s documentary, based on an article by Alex Kotlowitz (who also co-produced), follows members of CeaseFire, a Chicago-based conflict-mediation group, over the course of a year of their attempts to defuse potentially violent situations. Most of the group’s activists, as seen in the film, were once criminals themselves, which, together with their roots in the community, gains them the respect of the people they advise, cajole, dissuade, and mentor. James centers the film on a few of these “interrupters” and a handful of young people in need of guidance, and, with his insistent yet compassionate camerawork, gathers poignant, troubling stories. Among the recurring themes are the nefarious influence of gangs, the allure of easy money, the emotional toll of families broken by violence and drugs, and the need for jobs—and the hard-won wisdom the elders convey also includes their frequent mention of incarceration as the ultimate dissuader. Law enforcement comes across as awkward and misguided, yet it looms, ubiquitous and unexamined, in the film’s margins. James’s approach is not analytical but emotional; his depiction of people bearing inextinguishable pain is empathetic and powerful, and the struggle toward stability of one profound and troubled soul (a thirty-two-year-old man who has spent fifteen years in jail) has a Dostoyevskian intensity.



Manohla Dargis for the New York Times:

The stories in “The Interrupters,” a hard wallop of a documentary, may weigh heavily on your heart and head, but they will also probably infuriate you. There is a long tradition of what has been described as victim documentaries, nonfiction movies in which filmmakers train their cameras at people enduring crushing hardships. At their worst these documentaries exploit the suffering of others, turning their pain into consumable spectacles. “The Interrupters” evades that trap partly because it doesn’t try to sell a happy, easily digestible story and partly because it digs in. It took 14 or so months to shoot and clocks in at two absorbing hours (down from its original 162 minutes). Mostly, though, it rises above the usual do-gooder cant by giving the interrupters — and the people they work among and periodically come close to dying for — the time to share their stories about life in the trenches. Mr. James has put a face to a raging epidemic and an unforgivable American tragedy.


Leonard Quart for Dissent:

Though it displays few signs of stylistic virtuosity, the movie feels authentic and solid. The Interrupters captures an ethos of the inner city that we’ve seen before. But Steve James has made the film with consummate honesty; one senses nothing theatrical or artificial on screen. James has a gift for getting his trio of interrupters, and (more astonishingly) the people they are helping, to talk intimately about their lives. He clearly is at ease in the milieu he depicts.
We know that Ceasefire has had an impact in the neighborhoods that its members work in. But the film doesn’t promote the group as a panacea for the violence of the inner city. It is an organization with limited goals that can make life more bearable for people who inhabit this virulent environment. The Interrupters never flees from the fact that these are hard places in which to grow up, and which ultimately need much more than courageous people trying to stem the violent tide.



Matt Singer for IFC:

I see a lot of bad documentaries about good people. Some of the most boring docs are about the most interesting people because their filmmakers simply assume that their subjects’ greatness will transfer to their documentary through some sort of cinematic osmosis. Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz, director and producer of the new documentary “The Interrupters,” do not make that mistake.
Their subjects are good people — flawed, but good — working to end the disease of violence in Chicago. But James and Kotlowitz don’t just get a couple talking head interviews with these men and women, throw in a few experts on crime and gang violence, and call it a day. They spent a year with these so-called “violence interrupters,” insinuating themselves into their lives and their work. We get to know who they are, what they’ve done, and what they continue to do for the city of Chicago. “The Interrupters” is about an important issue and important people, but it doesn’t parade its importance like a medal of honor. It never forgets it’s a movie first, and its job is to do more than educate: it must entertain and move as well as enlighten.
With the richness of character of a great novel and the crackerjack suspense of a good thriller, “The Interrupters” is never less than totally engaging. The interrupters do good work, but that’s just one of many reasons why this is a very good film.



Andrew O’Hehir for Salon:

It’s like a gripping, can’t-turn-away dramatic scene from a David Simon cable series, “The Wire” or “Treme,” except that nobody is acting […] James crafts intimate portraits of his three subjects and also captures the difficult, dangerous and often surprising dynamics of their world. Chicago experienced a wave of youth violence during the year “The Interrupters” was shot, capped by the notorious murder of a high school student named Derrion Albert in September of 2009, captured in a horrifying video that quickly became a worldwide sensation. At a time when overall crime in America remains low (at least in relative historical terms), Chicago’s black and Latino neighborhoods are often depicted as zones of open warfare. The grieving families of 15- and 16-year-old murder victims, and the sidewalk memorials bedecked with teddy bears and balloons and scrawled messages, are undeniably hard to take. Furthermore, they stand as a rebuke to our convenient tendency to dehumanize urban violence, to view it as a dreadful pathology and willfully forget the fact that each of those deaths is experienced by a real family. Yet in this landscape of permanent trauma, what the interrupters find, time and again, is young people who are eager for alternatives, and virtually starving for advice and mentorship from wiser heads who can speak their language.
“The Interrupters” is a great work of drama that happens to be real, a Russian novel about crime and repentance set on the real-life streets of 21st-century America. You won’t see a movie this year that is more moving, more tragic, more upsetting, more hopeful or more necessary.



Lauren Wissot for Slant:

James is a savvy enough filmmaker to know when to lighten the proceedings lest the heavy, real-life drama prove intolerable to witness. A comedy of the absurd occurs when Matthews locks her keys in her car and none of the hardened kids on the block seem to know how to break into it! “When I was growing up in Englewood, we looked out for one another. To me it’s like there’s still some hope left. I love Englewood,” Matthews says wistfully. The tragedy is that these natural feelings of disappointment and hurt are only expressed through violence in communities like Englewood, where Matthews also serves as a coordinator for families at funeral after funeral. (Anger is never a primary emotion; what occurs first is fear or sadness, Slutkin emphasizes.) A lovely montage of shrines throughout the city, like a sprawling Vietnam memorial with Hennessy bottles and stuffed animals, makes this chronic pain visual.
And just when you think James’s doc couldn’t get more riveting, along comes part two, each scene packing a different punch. Here the ongoing intervention process, keeping a hothead away from his potential victim (as strenuous a job as keeping an addict from his dealer), is explored more fully when Williams receives a call from Flamo, a guy he knew in jail, asking for his help in a retaliatory hit. When Williams tries to calm him down, he cries, “I respect what y’all are doin’ and all—but fuck that!” This exchange highlights precisely what these interrupters are up against: impulsive hearts over rational minds. (Later, though, a spruced up Flamo, dressed in his security-guard uniform, gives credit to Williams for being like a fly always bugging him—so eventually he “had to get up and attend to that fly.”)



Elise Nakhnikian interviews James and Kotlowitz, also for Slant:

Slant: Did you start with the individual interrupters you wanted and then follow them, or did you look for dramatic mediations and then follow whoever happened to be involved?

SJ: We knew from the get-go that we wanted to follow interrupters, but we didn’t know which ones or how many, except that we knew we didn’t want too many. We knew Ameena was one, and then the process became one of filming the meetings they had every Wednesday. That helped with getting our finger on the pulse of what was going on week to week and getting them comfortable with us. That was also our way into getting to know more of the people around the table.
Tio Hardiman, who created the program, would tell these guys about us every week. He’d say, “They’re here, they’re trying to make this film; it’s important to us that we do this film. I want you guys to step up and get them into some mediations.” Cobe was the guy who really took it to heart and started calling us. We didn’t even notice him at the table until he started calling us. He wasn’t a guy that took over the room. He’s a gregarious and wonderful and funny guy, but not a guy that just kind of jumps out at you in a meeting.
Slant: In the past, both of you have generally told stories to middle- and upper-middle-class people about low-income people. You could say the message was always “don’t give up”—don’t demonize these people, don’t write them off, don’t oversimplify or overlook them or just give up on them. The Interrupters could work for those same audiences in that same way, but it seems like it could also work for the people in communities like the one that’s being portrayed, give them ideas and inspiration that could help them improve their lives. I know Kartemquin likes to use its films as a catalyst for community organizing. What do they have planned for this one?

SJ: We totally agree. This is a film that can work for those two audiences, in a big way. One of the many great things about Kartemquin as an organization is that they take seriously the whole civic outreach part of filmmaking. They just did an outreach with The Interrupters a couple weeks ago in Chicago, where they brought together about 80 kids who are part of various youth media groups in Chicago. These are kids from the same kind of neighborhoods that this film takes place in. they watched the movie, and they went for it big time. They were like, this movie needs to be in my school; people need to see this movie. They were laughing at the funny moments.



Eric Kohn explains the multiple versions of the film and how the streamlined one loses little of its impact, for Indiewire:

That final result, the one that the majority of audiences will see, runs around 40 minutes shorter than the Sundance cut. In other words, the total amount excised since Sundance amounts to nearly a quarter the length of the original version.This may come as a shock to those who have experienced “The Interrupters” at earlier stages, particularly since many of them found it entirely satisfying in its sprawling form. James, also the primary editor responsible for the changes, has taken an apologetic stance, but stands by the result. “I know how confusing this has been for everyone,” he told me this week. “Normally, I take a year to edit a film like this. In the rush to Sundance and onto the festival circuit, that process got considerably shortened. That’s why, despite great reviews and festival success, we trimmed the film some more.” He insists the latest cut satisfies his original agenda. “This really is where it would have ended up with a more typical post-production schedule,” he said. “And we think this is the best version of our story. Of course, you may disagree.”
Having seen the Sundance and theatrical cuts, I really can’t. However, the quantitative distinctions between various cuts are not also qualitative. Filled with enraged community dialogue, strategic meetings and tearful resolutions, “The Interrupters” remains the same movie at its core. With its two-hour running time, it still continues long enough to give the material room to breathe. The length enables an immersion factor, but not because of any specific scene.
The cuts are logical, but not essential. “The Interrupters” contains an intrinsic value embedded in its technique and enhanced by the electricity of its main characters, each of whom has escaped a violent or abusive background in an effort to work against the tide of violence plaguing the city. The progress of “The Interrupters” helps explain why it succeeds. New York’s Anthology Film Archives screened a series entitled “Talking Head” focused on non-fiction works that exclusively involve people, cameras, and language. “The Interrupters” would have made a great centerpiece. Although it technically belongs to the cinema vérité tradition, it contains dozens of talking heads, whose stories create a natural flow and lend a sense of malleability to the proceedings. Hardiman talks about the need for an interrupter to “immerse yourself in the bullshit,” and the movie has a similar effect on audiences.


Melissa Anderson in the Village Voice:

Inspired by a 2008 New York Times Magazine article by Alex Kotlowitz, Steve James’s commanding documentary The Interrupters, about “violence interrupters” in Chicago, who intervene in conflicts before they escalate into gunshots, unfolds as deeply reported journalism. Much like Hoop Dreams (1994), James’s in-depth examination of the athletic aspirations of two African-American high school students, The Interrupters reminds us of the powers and pleasures of well-crafted, immersive nonfiction filmmaking—a genre vitiated within the past five years by a glut of cruddy-looking, poorly researched and argued titles.
Unlike a majority of recent high-profile documentaries (especially those by Michael Moore and Davis Guggenheim), The Interrupters doesn’t rely on cute graphics or charts to convey its facts or point of view; James trusts that his audience is patient and intelligent enough to piece together Chicago’s history of violence simply by watching—and listening to—what’s onscreen. Following Nabokov’s advice to “caress the detail, the divine detail,” James cuts frequently to the makeshift shrines that appear after a killing: the ratty stuffed animals, empty bottles of Hennessy, and Magic Marker–scrawled poems on posterboard that serve as one of the few means of public mourning for communities that have been vilified, abandoned, and largely denied a voice—areas like Englewood and Altgeld Gardens, where, as a funeral director explains, “young people don’t expect to live past 30.”
James’s attention to specifics extends to Matthews, Williams, and Bocanegra, our guides through four seasons in hell. We follow each as they doggedly try to broker peace, extol the virtues of stepping back and cooling off, and reflect on their own past mistakes. The head-scarved Matthews, the daughter of an infamous Chicago gang leader and once a dope runner before embracing Islam, is the film’s most forthright, charismatic subject, shown trying to talk sense to an 18-year-old young woman in and out of correctional facilities—tough love that includes a trip to the mall for a manicure. Baby-faced teddy bear Williams, who served time for drug-related charges and attempted murder, aids a woman hiding out from her own adolescent sons and guides a 17-year-old as he apologizes to the barbershop employees he terrorized during a holdup. Viewing his work with CeaseFire as penance for the murder he committed as a teenager, Bocanegra, tearing up, explains his seemingly infinite capacity to listen and help: “I stay busy to stay out of bullshit and forget some of the foolish things I done.” It’s a blunt, moving statement, one of many made by extraordinary men and women who refuse to give up.


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