The Interrupters

The Interrupters


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

The Interrupters have what must be one of the most dangerous tasks in Chicago - the job of putting themselves in between the bullets and the target in a city recently besieged by high-profile killings, such as the brutal beating of Derrion Albert, a Chicago High School student, whose death was caught on videotape. It's a city where the National Guard are seemingly only one step away from moving in and where the winding down of America's once great industries is more painfully visible, as is the hidden segregation that lies outside of the American metropolis.

The Interrupters, or 'Violence Interrupters', are volunteers for the CeaseFire group. Founded by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, who believes that the spread of violence is like a disease, CeaseFire uses the Interrupters as footsoldiers to try to cut out the disease at its source. The Interrupters, created by Tio Hardiman, have built-in credibility on the streets because they were all mixed up gang violence once. They trade this currency - and mix it with sheer bloodymindedness - setting out daily into the suburbs of Chicago to intervene in violent conflicts before they explode further. This can be mediation, mentoring or a simple act of taking a possible shooter for a drive and a cup of coffee.

Director Steve James has form in this type of street-level documentary having helmed the acclaimed 1994 Hoop Dreams. Here, he largely follows the work of three of these volunteers, all of whom have histories that inspire wonder as to how they survived this far.

There's Ameena Matthews, whose father was one of the city’s most notorious gang leaders and who was herself a drug-ring enforcer. We see her plug away day after day at one of her charges - the violent yet strangely childlike Caprysha - a frustrating and seemingly unrewarding experience. But Ameena is no quitter, though the strain breaks through in quieter moments.

We also meet Cobe Williams, who saw his own father murdered when he was young, and ducked in and out of prison himself (12 years for trafficking and atempted murder) before getting off that path and rejoining his family. He gets deeply involved in his cases, and for much of the film we see him alternately trying to talk down the hotheaded pistol-wielding Flamo, who is out for revenge after the police raided his house, and taking young parolee Lil' Mike back to the scene of the stickup he took part in and which earned him his sentence.

Eddie Bocanegra is the most visibly haunted of the three, a small, quiet Latino who makes for an unlikely former criminal. Yet he shot dead a rival in a beef when he was just 17, and spent 14 years in prison. His CeaseFire work is clearly his repentance, much of his time on screen being spent in schools trying to save the lives of children younger than he was when he was in the game.

Fascinating, haunting and often very tense, The Interrupters is a solid piece of social comment that gets the camera intimately into the action, and it suffers only in that such an issue demands more be brought into the camera's scope. Where are the police and the senior politician's views on the state of Chicago today? Where are the voices that can place this situation in a social and economic context that takes in a wider range of explanations for the violence in Chicago, other than a lack of personal responsibility or faith.

It would have enriched the film to see the virus-analogy view of CeaseFire's founder challenged further, but that is probably not what James was looking for. If, instead, he wanted to show us a gripping study in unglamorous and largely unacknowledged courage against the odds, he has succeeded.

Reviewed on: 11 Aug 2011
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A story of ex-gang members who are now protecting their communities from the violence they themselves once employed.
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Director: Steve James

Writer: Alex Kotlowitz

Year: 2011

Runtime: 125 minutes

Country: US

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