Wednesday 14 December 2011

On DVD: "The Interrupters"

Seems you don't have to walk far in the community of Englewood, Chicago before you run into a funeral cortege, or a floral tribute, or a glimpse of grief-induced graffiti, or some other makeshift shrine bearing witness to the gun and knife crime that plagues the area. The Interrupters, a documentary by Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz, returns to the city of James's landmark Hoop Dreams in the company of those who've made it their business to stage an intervention on behalf of Chicago's younger residents.

CeaseFire is an organisation whose volunteers - "violence interrupters", they call themselves - walk the streets handing out flyers, phone numbers and advice with the underlying aim of defusing grievances before they've had the chance to explode; in extreme cases, the interrupters will physically put themselves between those gang members waving guns around, or attempting to extract one another's brain matter with locally sourced lumps of concrete. For a variety of reasons, this is not work you or I would be cut out for, which makes CeaseFire's interventions all the more admirable: its recruits tend to be former gang members themselves, who can speak on the same level as their charges, withouth the condescension or bullshit the latter group has come to expect from concerned parties. A typical CeaseFire staff meeting finds one of the interrupters pointing out "we got 500 years of prison time around this table - that's a lot of fucking wisdom".

Over a year's filming, James and Kotlowitz observe the organisation's diverse methodology. One executive director, Gary Slutkin, is a sometime epidemiologist who studies violence as one might any other disease, forming ideas as to how it spreads, but also how it can be contained and prevented. (His scientific rationale proves an enlightened counterpoint to one State Representative's suggestion that the National Guard be mobilised to combat a sudden spike in the community's murder rate.) Out on the streets, however, a more personal (even artistic) touch holds sway: the film celebrates the heroism of interrupters such as Ameena Matthews, daughter of gang leader Jeff Fort, whose interventions become more potent and theatrical - rending her garments and wailing at onlookers - the more of a crowd gathers at any given streetcorner, determined as she is to make the greatest possible impact on the most number of people.

We get a sense of the possibility and process of change in scenes in which the interrupters discuss what it was that made them go legit: for Ameena, it was a combo of getting shot, marriage to a Muslim preacher, and becoming a mother to a child of her own, while for Eddie Bocanegra, an erstwhile carjacker with close ties to the city's Latin community, it was prison time and witnessing an especially mindless shooting, the site of which he comes to revisit here. TV's The Wire, assembled as it was by hardened sceptics, arrived at the conclusion that shit happens (and is allowed to happen) in ghettos like this, which must have made that series slightly easier to stomach for those white middle-class viewers enthusiastically consuming the boxsets, knowing there was nothing at all they could possibly do about this. James and Kotlowitz, for their part, are keen to stress there are ways out of the cycle of violence, even if it often takes the loudest of alarms, the most life-threatening of fires, to set an individual to looking for the exits.

In the meantime, we get an evocative picture of life at the kerbside. Ameena engages a class of potential converts, persuading them this intervention is more about them than it is about her; confrontations spark up out of nowhere, often with scant regard for the camera (or the safety of anybody holding it); James lingers on the sadly telling image of a pile of tribute teddies lying in the snow at the site of yet another tragedy. These twelve months throw up their unfair share of setbacks, it's true, but one sign of CeaseFire's effectiveness is that there are long stretches (whole seasons, indeed) where danger is averted, allowing Chicago's youth time to rebuild, do a painting, visit their parents, mourn the departed, talk something through, take stock of their lives, and decide what within them might be worth protecting and carrying forward.

It's this breathing space the interrupters are fighting, in their own committedly non-aggressive manner, to preserve: a few more minutes, hours, days for these easily and understandably riled kids to choose the best course of action to pursue. James and Kotlowitz's film feels a little scattered in this two-hour international cut, having to juggle numerous case studies worthy of both their and their subjects' attention, like a stressed social worker determined to resolve all the world's conflicts in one night. It nevertheless remains a shame that something this relevant to the contemporary American experience should have been left off the Academy's longlist for Best Documentary Feature, depriving The Interrupters of the wider audience it deserves; then again - as far as inner-city, black-on-black violence is concerned - there are always going to be those who want to look the other way.

The Interrupters is available on DVD through Dogwoof.

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