Cool responses in hot situations
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Sep 16, 2011
Evidence of violence is inescapable in some Chicago neighborhoods. It exists in shrines dotting streets to the teenage dead, yellow police tape roping off city blocks, a YouTube video of the beating death of a 16-year-old boy. It's passed down like a legacy through generations and spreads as quickly as an airborne disease.
Combatting such an epidemic seems nearly impossible, but one group is doing its best. The gripping documentary "The Interrupters" looks at a year in the life of three CeaseFire workers - Chicago natives with criminal pasts who devote their days to saving lives.
The film by director Steve James ("Hoop Dreams") begins by answering the question, "How does this happen?" It's a simple, if alarming, case of cause and effect. One scenario starts with cross words and ends with lost teeth. During the incident, bricks are thrown, a girl wields a butcher's knife to defend her brother and a 5-year-old tosses out expletives, mimicking the irate kids around her. The situation quickly reaches a fever pitch, but violence interrupter Ameena Matthews intercepts the boy bleeding from his mouth before he can retaliate and talks him down from his rage.
Among these mediation all-stars, Matthews may be the most memorable. One of the few female interrupters, she is the daughter of an infamous gang leader and spent years following in her father's footsteps before turning her life around. She's a heroic protagonist, a sensitive mentor and an impressive, tough-as-nails orator. She will place herself in a scrum of gang members to give them a piece of her mind, and they listen.
The story also features Eddie Bocanegra, who gives off the sweet vibe of a sensitive soul even as he details his one-time talent for stealing cars and the way he shot a boy dead (he served 14 years in prison for the crime). The third interrupter, Cobe Williams, is a charmingly jovial family man whose father was beaten to death when Williams was 11 years old.
Everyone, it seems, is touched by violence, and interviews with CeaseFire founder and epidemiologist Gary Slutkin offers a fascinating scientific explanation. Slutkin sees violence as a disease and equates the mysterious elements that set people off to little-known microorganisms.
The majority of the movie is spent on the trio's day-to-day lives, which consist of forming bonds with some of Chicago's most volatile residents and breaking up fights as they happen. It's dangerous business, which becomes all the more immediate when, during the course of filming, one interrupter is shot.
While that's just one of many setbacks for CeaseFire, the gritty film is realistically inspiring and, thankfully, not overly dramatized. While the interrupters succeed on many levels, a pervasive sadness remains. The violence really is a plague, to the point that these kids assume it will be their ultimate undoing. At one point, the camera pans across a wall in which each brick contains the name of a slain neighborhood kid, and one reads: "I am next."
Contains strong language and images of violence and its aftermath.