In the spring of 2009, documentary filmmaker Steve James, best known for "Hoop Dreams," and journalist Alex Kotlowitz, author of "There Are No Children," collaborated on a film about the self-described "violence interrupters" of Chicago's CeaseFire, an organization dedicated to preventing shootings. Over the course of a year, 300 hours of footage was shot centering on three of the interrupters, all former gang members, whose mission – job is too soft a term – has been to intervene in confrontations before they turn violent.
The result of this mammoth undertaking is "The Interrupters," which is alternately inspirational and disheartening, galvanizing and wearying. It takes fortitude to stick with this film's almost nonstop litany of woes, the sequences of actual violence and its consequences, and the talking out of that violence. Although his subject is powerful, James is not a powerful storyteller, and the film's somewhat shapeless structure flattens the experience unnecessarily. James may have felt that imposing a tighter narrative approach would falsify the harsh reality of these lives. He needn't have worried. The lives have a dynamism all their own.
Ameena Matthews, one of the three interrupters profiled, has been with CeaseFire for more than three years and grew up on Chicago's South Side as the daughter of one of the city's most notorious gang leaders. She herself was a gang lieutenant before turning to Islam and starting a family. Imperious as a princess, tough-talking as any gangbanger, she moves into confrontations with a fearlessness that is truly awe-inspiring. She knows these people and these streets.
Eddie Bocanegra spent 14 years in prison for a murder he committed as a gang member when he was 17. Now with CeaseFire for more than two years, he lectures and teaches art to classrooms of kids to keep them off the streets, and mediates in the same neighborhoods he once rolled through.
Ricardo "Cobe" Williams, whose father was murdered when he was 12, had three stints in prison for drug-related charges and attempted murder. Now with CeaseFire for four years and married with four children, this exceedingly good-spirited man has turned himself around so completely that it is dauntingly difficult to imagine him in his former life.
These three "interrupters" are the film's focus, but there are others – such as Tio Hardiman, the director of CeaseFire, Illinois, a former drug addict and hustler, who created and piloted the introduction of the violence interrupters; and CeaseFire founder Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologst for many years with the World Health Organization.
Slutkin's contention, derived from his years combating the spread of cholera and AIDS in Africa, is that treating violence is like treating disease: Stop it at its source. In practical terms, this means attempting, in the moment, to keep the most violent offenders from acting on their impulses. No attempt, at least no overt attempt, is made to shut down gang activity. Violence is not apprehended as a moral or even a social issue.
How successful is this approach? The film doesn't really say, although elsewhere independent researchers hired by the Justice Department have cited a fairly significant reduction in shootings in the neighborhoods where CeaseFire was involved. In the end, statistics are of less moment to this movie than the case-by-case personal successes that, in some cases, are emotionally overwhelming.
Bocanegra, for example, takes us back to the street where he killed his victim, and his words are weighted with a heavy grief. Without histrionics, he seems aghast at the person he once was.
Matthews reaches out repeatedly to a troubled 18-year-old girl, Caprysha, who obviously reminds her of herself at that age. Caprysha would try the most patient of souls but Matthews's mediations are battle-tested. She knows these kids better than they know themselves, and because they know this about her, they listen.
The most powerful scene involves a teenager, Lil' Mikey, who, with Williams's urging, returns to a barbershop to apologize to the family and patrons he robbed at gunpoint three years earlier. His willful repentance is first accepted warily, then embraced. The stunning, horrifying kicker to this scene comes afterward, when Williams asks Lil' Mikey about his recollections of those people and, speaking of the time of the crime, he responds, "I didn't remember them at all. Not at all." He'll never forget them now. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)