Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz are something of a narrative power couple in Chicago. They’ve both become leading chroniclers of inner-city America—James with his seminal documentary Hoop Dreams and Kotlowitz with his probing first book, There Are No Children Here. When they were filming their new documentary, The Interrupters, James joked that more people had seen Hoop Dreams but that Kotlowitz’s book had become a cult classic in prisons across the state.
The Interrupters tackles a topic that has underscored much of their work—why violent crimes are so prevalent in inner-city America and what can be done to break this endless cycle of senseless murder. The film presents a new take on an old story, emerging from an article Kotlowitz wrote for the New York Times Magazine about an organization called CeaseFire, which treats violence as a public health problem, attacking the virus before it spreads. Ceasefire deploys “violence interrupters,” reformed ex-gang members who know the streets and can stop violent incidents before they explode. The Interrupters tells the stories of three of them: Ameena Matthews, a charismatic daughter of one of South Side Chicago’s most famous gang leaders; Eddie Bocanegra, a remorseful convicted murderer from the predominantly Mexican Little Village neighborhood; and Cobe Williams, a relentless activists who spent twelve years in jail for drugs and gang-banging.
Their stories are a powerful window onto an America that affects millions of people but that most of the country rarely sees. James directed the film and Kotlowitz produced it. I interviewed them both in New York City recently. The film opens in New York this Friday, July 29, premieres in Chicago on August 12 and is scheduled to be shown on PBS’s Frontline early next year. —Ari Berman
Alex, what persuaded you to turn your article into this film?
Kotlowitz: What drew me into Ceasefire was the “interrupters.” Their work is amazing and I got to spend time with them and one of the things that both intrigued me and eluded me when I was working on the magazine article was understanding their own personal journeys. I usually think that print trumps film, but this was a moment that I thought that if you could get the kind of access you needed, it could really make for a terrific film and you would be able to really get inside the personal stories of some of these individuals.
The magazine piece is very much about Ceasefire, very much about the organization, very much about their philosophy, and clearly that’s part of the film but we didn’t want to make a film that was about an organization. We really saw in many ways The Interrupters as kind of our prism onto these communities and onto this really stubborn, persistent issue, and so the characters become our guides.
Was it tough to get the access?
James: We knew we’re not making reality television here so we’re not looking for endless titillating moments in the streets of potential violence. We needed some of those moments, clearly, but we felt like if we got three or four really good ones, that’s enough for a movie, because the movie was going to try to dig deeper into each of these situations and behind it all and what caused people to find themselves in this place.