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Thread: THE INTERRUPTERS (Steve James 2011)

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    THE INTERRUPTERS (Steve James 2011)

    Steve James: THE INTERRUPTERS (2011)
    Review by Chris Knipp


    Using street cred to block street violence

    Inspired by a New York Times Magazine article by Alex Kotlowitz, who collaborated on the film and co-produced, The Interrupters team spent a year following a group of ex-cons in Chicago (most are black; one is Latino) committed to breaking the cycle of violence fueled by gangs, shootings, and drugs. Steve James, the director, has covered the hardships wrought by urban poverty from a Chicago viewpoint before. Twenty years ago he made a similar movie, called Grassroots Chicago. His 1993 documentary Higher Goals urged athletes to focus on education instead of sports fame. In '94 came James's most famous film, Hoop Dreams, a multiple-prizewinning documentary that follows with a kind of passion (and a length of almost three hours) the lives of a couple of young black athletes trying to make their way through college basketball to professional sports, with all the stops and starts their poor Chicago background subjects them to and all the incidental life passages that happen along the way. Then in 1997 came an excellent dramatic feature, Prefontaine, depicting the short, charismatic career of the great Oregon runner Steve Prefontaine. It's rivaled but not outdone by Robert Towne's 1998 movie on the same theme, Without Limits. If running is your thing, you have to see both.

    In his sixth feature with Kartemquin Films, James has latched onto people who are struggling with the heart of the problem of the ghetto -- the killing of young people, day in and day out. The organization is called CeaseFire. Most of its members are former gangsters and drug lords who spent years in prison for anything from armed robbery to murder. People like Cobe Williams, who spent 12 years inside for drug trafficking and attempted murder, and Eddie Bocanegra, who did 14 for killing a neighborhood youth while still in his teens, have the street cred to step up to armed, angry men and ask them to talk and think things over. CeaseFire's director Tio Hardiman has had a rough past too, and talks the rough talk.

    Violence is old. But the new way it's looked at here -- a change that happened earlier with drug and alcohol addiction -- has shifted focus from the negativism of moral disapproval to the more sensible, and more helpful and useful, approach of disease-treatment. CeaseFire was founded by an epidemiologist, Gary Slutkin, and he looks on the organization's employees as "disease control workers."

    The Interrupters, like James's other ghetto tales, teams with victories and defeats. The world it depects is hardscabble, soul-destroying, and full of pain. This film is full of rough times and rough people, bright colors and determined spirits. People like Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra are some kind of urban saints, forged by pain and self-examination into patient nurturing individuals. It's impressive to see Cobe quietly establish communication with Flamo, who's bent on seeking revenge on a snitch, but winds up getting a job, or L'il Mikey, released from prison, going to the barber shop he held up to apologize two years later. Bocanegra spends time with the family of the boy he killed, and teaches young kids to express their pain and hope through art.

    Most photogenic is the beautiful Ameena Matthews, wearing elegant and colorful Muslim attire. A former wild girl gangbanger and drug dealer and daughter of the imprisoned gang leader Jeff Fort, Ameena like Cobe goes right up to tough angry young blacks and stops them with conversation and in her case often, humor and affection. Ameena's toughest subject in the film is Caprysha, a teenage abuse victim and plump, burly hothead whose lack of parenting has eroded her self esteem and left her angry. There are also a couple of brothers whose mama has moved to a secret location because their membership in rival gangs has made them dangerously hostile toward each other. They and their mother and sister are tamed and reconciled at film's end; but Capriysha's outcome is uncertain. She keeps winding up back in custody. It's all a struggle. But when you see a whole roomful of tough ex-cons debating how they'd deal with the brothers' conflict, you realize that CeaseFire has trained big guns on its dilemmas, and these guys are capable of transforming at-risk kids into "interrupters" like them.

    It may be that for a great documentary something unique is needed, like a son's search for his famous absentee father in Nathaniel Kahn's My Architect, or the kind of passionate attentiveness Nicolas Philibert brings to covering a year of rural elementary school in a mountainous part of France in To Be and To Have; you can see it again in how the French documentarian filmed the life of an aging female orangutan in a Paris zoo, selflessly "narrated" only by the voices of zoo visitors, in his recent Nénette. Philibert and Kahn have beautiful styles. James opts for a more utilitarian approach, organizing the film only by the seasons of the year, ruthlessly cutting scenes (but providing good chunks of some great dramatic moments), showing everything in harshly bright colored HD video, using voiceovers of participants covering their own dialogue sometimes. The fact is, James and his team were working in a war zone. The national guard was temporarily brought in when 20 people were killed in Chicago in a single night during the filming year. When the situation is like that, the filmmakers can't opt for style and delicacy.

    You can't say the length is justified this time by the wealth of personal detail about two individuals as with Hoop Dreams, whose lives are chronicled over a four-year period. But at almost the same length, The Interrupters, which eschews Hollywood endings or sensationalism with equal austerity, takes on tremendously challenging material. Steve James maintains his reputation as a filmmaker with a gift for looking at the tough side of life and finding a modicum of hope and a large helping of humanity.

    The Interrupters is James's fifth film to be selected for the Sundance Film Festival, and was broadcast on PBS's "Frontline." It was released in US theaters starting July 29, 2011, August 12 in the UK.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-05-2011 at 12:30 PM.


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