'The Interrupters': Gang Doc Nearly Perfect
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Once you've made one of the greatest documentaries of all time -- 1994's "Hoop Dreams," which followed two Chicago basketball players from grade school to college -- what could possibly come next? Director Steve James tried to leap to fiction ("Prefontaine") and tried to make documentaries on lighter topics ("Reel Paradise") or on a more intimate scale ("Stevie") in the years since "Hoop Dreams." But he always seemed like, bluntly, a man in search of work worthy of his talents -- his unadorned shooting style, his refusal to employ voice-over, the patient truth and unblinkingly long gaze of his perspective. And with "The Interrupters" he is fortunate to have found it, and we are fortunate as well. James has given us one of the truly great documentaries of 2011, and given us a film that, in many ways, is just as good as "Hoop Dreams."
Over the course of a year, James (inspired by a New York Times story by co-producer Alex Kotlowitz) follows the men and women of CeaseFire, a Chicago-based group whose approach to violence is twofold. First, under the direction of epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, the group works from the idea that violence is a disease -- not metaphorically, but literally, where carriers and transmission vectors can be isolated or interrupted before they lash out and infect others. (Slutkin notes, matter-of-factly, how "violence is learned behavior. You can judge it, but that's not what we do in science.") And second, the group is composed of ex-criminals and gang members, people who can tell firsthand the consequences of violence, of anger, of rage. During one of CeaseFire's many organizational meetings, a member looks around the room and notes that among the 30-plus people in attendance, "we got over 500 years in prison at this table. That's a lot of f---ing wisdom."
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And unlike a Spurlock or a Moore or a Timoner, there's no voice-over here, no Flash-animated graphics or computer-animated Venn diagrams. There's just people, and the slow hard work of trying to convince people that they can change. James follows three "interrupters" in their work: Ameena Matthews (ex-gang member and daughter to a notorious criminal), Cobe Williams (who turned his life around after 13 years in prison) and Eddie Bocanegra (still paying the price for a murder he committed when he was 17). And much of that work, we realize, is storytelling -- not just the "interrupters" telling youths at risk how they suffered and what they learned, but also telling themselves that they'll never be like that again, that they are doing good work now, that there's some kind of atonement possible.
We also, to James' credit, see why this work is necessary. The death of 14-year-old Derrion Albert is shown in graphic detail, to demonstrate the kind of event that the members of CeaseFire work tirelessly after -- to stop the cascade of revenge and recrimination, to keep funerals from turning into gang ceremonies, to instill a sense of long-term consequence in a community where, as a funeral director says matter-of-factly, "Young people don't expect to live past 30." And the film shows us people being blunt and bold. An ex-con named Flamo notes that he's spent 15 of his 32 years in prison: "Ain't no shame, ain't no secret." Ameena says to one of her charges, Caprysha, how "don't nobody need to kiss your ass for you to do the things you need to do."
I've read other reviews complaining that James' approach here is too linear, too structured, too detached. Considering that this is a story, not showmanship, and that these are real people in a real place, I should think that linear thinking, structured presentation and detached observation are exactly what you would want, considering how many other recent documentaries utterly lack them. Really, if you aren't moved by the simple circumstance of Eddie Bocanegra explaining who, and how, he killed when he was 17 -- in the place where it happened -- you could certainly suggest that a little more editing and flash would benefit the scene. But I think you'd be saying more about your sensibilities than the film's merits. Hollywood suggests everything is going to be fine; the news suggests that everything is going to be awful. In-between, in "The Interrupters," we have instead the truth -- that things will be, and that it'll take a lot of real work and true honesty to make them better. James' "Hoop Dreams" has been spoken of with reverence and wonder for 17 years; now, he has an equal to its reputation.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.