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.
Did you feel in danger while filming in these violent areas?
James: Well I think sometimes when you’re out on the streets and you’re filming, because you’re so focused on what you’re doing and especially when it’s a pretty riveting and fascinating situation, it’s true that you can kind of forget where you are, a little bit. But I ever felt in any real danger at all, and I don’t think Alex did either, and that was in part because when we’re with these interrupters they provide us certain sorts of bullet-proof qualities because of who they are and what respect they command in those communities.
Let’s talk a little more about the theory behind CeaseFire. It’s an intriguing theory to attack violent crimes as a virus, but at the same time what about the root causes of why this type of violence is so prevalent?
Kotlowitz: It’s a really important question and it’s a question that I raised in my New York Times Magazine piece and we raise it in the film. I do think that the exciting thing about the philosophy behind CeaseFire is this notion of thinking about violence as a public health matter, but you’re right that where it’s limited, at least in the way it’s thought about at the moment, is that it doesn’t incorporate or include and embrace all those other forces bearing down on peoples’ lives: lack of work, especially for people coming out of prison, housing, healthcare, schools, all those things that bear on the spirit and souls of individuals and certainly have an effect on violence in that community.
James: We didn’t set out to do an analytical piece about this issue, because we really wanted this to be a much more experiential kind of film where we really put you in the shoes of the people in this community and in the shoes of the interrupters as they go around and they try to make an impact in a very individual way.
But by definition are the interrupters just interrupting, rather than permanently stopping, these violent incidents?
James: The best ones don’t just mediate a conflict, they really are mediating people’s lives. Eddie says at one point in the movie, If I stop a guy from killing somebody tonight, what about tomorrow? What if he gets mad tomorrow? Then what? And so you see that what these three interrupters are trying to do is really seize the moment where they are mediating a violent conflict with someone as a way into their life to really do more than just that.
Do we know how to solve this problem? Is it not being addressed or do we actually not know how to solve it?
James: I think we know a lot of the good solutions. I think there are a lot of smart people out there who have a lot of great solutions. I think we have to care. By care I mean we really have to be committed to put the resources towards it.
Has the recession made life that much more difficult for these people?
Kotlowitz: We saw it in the course of filming. The number of people who had foreclosed homes while we were filming increased dramatically. In fact there’s a story that did not make it into the final cut about a young man who was living in a foreclosed home who was robbing people and Cobe tries to intervene in his life.
James: There is a strong sense of hopelessness that’s been exacerbated by this recession—there’s no question that. The violence has gone down since the ’80s and ’90s, which is great, but some of that is just because people have moved away. Englewood [on the South Side] in the last Census lost 20,000 residents—just that neighborhood alone. Lost 20,000 residents. And you see the evidence when you drive around there—it’s all these abandoned lots and empty homes.
Are these problems that are beyond CeaseFire’s control?
Kotlowitz: [CeaseFire founder] Gary Slutkin does talk about this at one point in the movie, the belief that if you really want to talk about rebuilding these communities, re-strengthening them, you’ve got to figure out a way to stop the violence. Because until you do that, businesses aren’t going to want to settle here, they aren’t going to feel safe, kids won’t be able to concentrate at school. So you kind of get this chicken-and-egg argument. What I admire about CeaseFire is they are targeting the violence, in an effort to diminish it as best they can, and then begin to deal with all these other problems.
James: They’re not waiting around for us to solve all those other social ills first. In this film we really wanted to let people see what a difference individuals can make on the ground, because it also helps people who don’t live in these communities to see that these people aren’t born to be violent, that these aren’t people who are irretrievable, that these are people who can be reached, that want to be reached, and want to have lives like you and me.
What are the numbers on violent crime in American inner cities today?
Kotlowitz: It’s gone down considerably. So you look at the late ’80s and early ’90s when the crack epidemic in Chicago spurred 950 murders a year. It’s roughly half of that now. And that is pretty typical of what’s happened across the country with some notable exceptions, New Orleans being one of them.
Do you think that’s one of the reasons the issue has vanished from the national radar screen?
Kotlowitz: I don’t think it was ever on the national radar screen. It’s not a part of the public conversation, it’s not part of the political conversation, and these communities are completely physically and spiritually isolated from the rest of us. A main reason for making a film like this is to get other people to sit up and take notice… and to give a sense that there’s some promise.
What do you want people to take away from this film?
Kotlowitz: That there’s a sense of promise, a sense of hope. You look at the problem of violence and people throw up their hands often—people not living in these communities. So we hope that people look at this film and think to themselves, there is a way out.
I think the other part is the sense of humanity. You look at the stories of just Eddie, Ameena and Cobe, their individual stories, these are guys that if you met them twenty years ago, you would have looked at them on the street and thought that they were lost causes. These are people you didn’t want to be around, these are the super-predators, as they were labeled back then, and look at their lives now. Look at what they’re doing with their lives. You look at them and you think what about that other kid on their block, why shouldn’t we look at them and feel that there’s some sense of promise, too?
Barack Obama lived on the South Side of Chicago. Was there a hope that he would do more to address this issue?
James: I think there was a hope that Barack Obama would do more on a variety of fronts. But yes, absolutely that’s one. But it’s also unfair, in a way, to expect that because he’s an African-American man who lived in Chicago the responsibility falls more greatly on him to do more. It really falls on us all.
The reality is that a documentary like this, in the world we live in in terms of film, it’s mostly going to be seen by affluent white folks. And I think one of the things we hope is that the group of people who see this film will feel some burden of responsibility or desire to contribute in some way. Maybe they contribute to an organization that’s doing good work, it may be they offer to become mentors because you see the role that mentorship can play. There’s all sorts of ways that everybody can kind of take some responsibility for this.
Are you trying to get outreach in place so you can show it not just to those in affluent areas?
James: Absolutely. That’s a big part of our outreach.
Kotlowitz: We’re really eager to get it out into the communities…
James: And we had this youth summit outreach event [in Chicago] last weekend where they brought a hundred kids from across the city and the response to the film was just extremely encouraging because these kids felt like…
Kotlowitz: They saw themselves…
James: Yeah, they saw themselves and they felt like this was such an honest examination and it’s stuff that weighs on them. So, to a person, in the breakout group after they all said this needs to be in our schools, we need to see this, people need to see this.