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Violence Interrupted

In their new doc, duo Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and Alex Kotlowitz profile some criminals-turned-activists who find redemption through mediation on the streets of Chicago.

The Interrupters: Steve James & Alex Kotlowitz
From a Chicago shrine, courtesy of Kartemquin Films

If you live anywhere in the United States, chances are you know that Chicago notoriously has one of the highest murder rates in the country, with communities reeling from both high-profile deaths (the videotaped beating of Derrion Albert) and everyday, (sad to say) commonplace violence. In response, an organization called CeaseFire set out to find an authentic way to defuse situations before they escalate. CeaseFire grew out of epidemiologist Gary Slutkin’s belief that “the spread of violence mimics that of infectious diseases,” so that in order to stop the contagion, one must go straight to the source.


Enter the “violence interrupters.” This cadre of former gang members, drug dealers—and even violence perpetrators—find redemption through their work to stop the spread of violence within their communities. These interrupters patrol the streets, on high alert for situations that could become violent. When they see something, they often engage in intense—and sometimes dangerous—mediations, aimed at showing community members better ways of communicating with each other and resolving conflicts peacefully.


The Interrupters: Steve James & Alex Kotlowitz
Gary Slutkin, Founder and Executive Director of CeaseFire and Tio Hardiman, creator of the Interrupters program, courtesy of Kartemquin Films


CeaseFire caught the eye of writer Alex Kotlowitz, whose book There are No Children Here (1992) chronicled two years in the lives of two brothers in a violent Chicago housing project. Kotlowitz profiled CeaseFire for The New York Times Magazine before calling up his friend Steve James—a documentary filmmaker best known for his Oscar-nominated Hoop Dreams (which Roger Ebert called "the best film of the '90s")—and suggesting The Interrupters as a film subject: he thought a doc could dig deeper into the personal stories of those involved. Together, the two men—with James as director/producer/co-editor, and Kotlowitz as producer—spent 14 months with the interrupters on the city streets; the result is a moving portrait of the complicated journeys some lives take.


We recently sat down with James and Kotlowitz to discuss their film, their city—both are Chicago residents—and the movement that has changed not only the lives of the people in countless communities, but also the filmmakers themselves.


The Interrupters: Steve James & Alex Kotlowitz
Filmmakers Alex Kotlowitz and Steve James, courtesy of Kartemquin Films

Tribeca: How did this film come about?


Alex Kotlowitz: Beginning with my book There are No Children Here—and Steve certainly grappled with this in Hoop Dreams—so much of those two years [I followed the] boys was about the violence in their lives. And since the book came out, three of the kids that I spent time with, and got to know reasonably well, have been murdered. (Not the two main subjects, I want to be clear.) It’s been troubling, it’s been somewhat bewildering, and I had heard about this group CeaseFire—and I thought, “Yet one more kind of gang interventionist group,” and I kind of rolled my eyes. But [my friend] insisted that I come by and spend a little time with them, and I did.


And I came away—the thing that impressed me about the organization was that they offered this different prism to look at the violence. Gary Slutkin, its founder, talks about how transmission of violence mimics the transmission of an infectious disease. One of the things CeaseFire does well is that it takes the moral judgment out of the equation: these are not good and bad people; it’s a disease.


The Interrupters: Steve James & Alex Kotlowitz
 Cobe Williams, Eddie Bocanegra, and Tio Hardiman of CeaseFire Illinois, courtesy of Kartemquin Films


I began to spend time at these Wednesday meetings of the interrupters, and you spend one afternoon there and you’re kind of hooked. I just thought, “My God, what a collection of men—mostly men, some women—who’ve got this incredible kind of aperture onto the city, and onto the communities, and they’re doing amazing work.”


So then I was writing this piece [for The New York Times Magazine]—I like to think that writing trumps film, but I’m not as convinced of that as I was [laughs]—


Steve James: Not anymore! No, it never trumped film…


Alex Kotlowitz: —I began to think this could make a really terrific film, IF you could get the kind of access you needed. One of things that both intrigued and eluded me when I was working on the magazine piece was really getting the personal journeys of the interrupters. Steve and I have long been friends, so I told him about the story.


Steve James: And then I read the story. I called him up and said, “Alex, I think we could make a film out of this.”


Alex Kotlowitz: I wasn’t sure we could get the access.


The Interrupters: Steve James & Alex Kotlowitz
Violence interrupter Ameena Matthews with Producer/Director Steve James, Producer Alex Kotlowitz, and Co-Producer/Sound Recordist Zak Piper, courtesy of Kartemquin Films


Steve James: But I said to him, “We only need 3-4 good mediations to make a film. We’re not going to do reality TV, with endless mediations, following people in the streets, going, ‘Oh, wow! That guy almost died!’” That didn’t interest either of us. We wanted to do a film that grappled with it, and tried to dig beneath the surface and understand what brings people to that place in their lives. And then, of course, more importantly, how do you get them past it? The interrupters are key to that.


We had meetings with the interrupters, and with the CeaseFire brass, and told them what we were interested in doing. We were very clear that we wanted to focus on the interrupters, and enough of them told us in individual meetings that they thought we could get [access to] mediations. So we took the leap and started to film.


Tribeca: Were they open to it? To be blunt, how did they feel about two white guys coming in—


Steve James: Well, Alex had really paved the way by doing the article that they were really happy with.


Alex Kotlowitz: The bottom line is that, given what we do, we’re always outsiders; we always have that initial hurdle. Part of it is being straight and frank with people about what you’re doing—recognizing that you’re there at their invitation, that it’s a privilege to spend time with them. That’s how both of us operate. They thought the magazine piece was a fair and honest representation of their work.


The Interrupters: Steve James & Alex Kotlowitz
Cobe Williams, violence interrupter, courtesy of Kartemquin Films

Steve James: But once we started to film, we had to build that trust and earn their respect. We’re still white guys, and now we’re white guys with a camera. I’ve been through that process many times. It’s about candor, honesty, being clear about what you want. And it’s also about being clear you’re there to learn, and that you respect what they’re doing, that you think it’s admirable and worthy of being documented in a film.


With each person, that path to trust and ease that allows for the scenes that you see in that movie is a whole different journey. Cobe immediately embraced the idea, but he was almost too enthusiastic—he would go out and interview people in the streets for us: “So, what are you doing on the corner today?” We had to pull him aside and say, “Stop interviewing people. If we have a question, we’ll ask it. You just do what you [normally] do.”


With Ameena, she needed to understand why we wanted to do this film. Just how committed were we to telling the true story, and telling it with empathy? Not coming in like the news does, and saying, “Look at this horror! 20 people killed in the streets today!” It wasn’t going to be that kind of exploration.


Alex Kotlowitz: You’ve got to be willing to learn, this sense of discovery, to be willing to have your assumptions challenged as you’re out there, at every bend, at every corner.


The Interrupters: Steve James & Alex Kotlowitz
Ameena Matthews, violence interrupter, courtesy of Kartemquin Films

Tribeca: How long did you spend filming this movie?


Alex Kotlowitz: 14 months. We had over 300 hours of footage.


Tribeca: I would imagine that’s a really tough challenge, editing a movie like this. It’s not as long as Hoop Dreams, but I understand it was at one point…


Steve James: [laughs] It was. We’ve cut it down. Look, I love editing. To me, it’s the most day-in, day-out satisfying part of the process. This film put that to the test, because the shooting was a pretty incredible experience.


Tribeca: Were you both involved in the day-to-day shooting process?


Steve James: I held the camera, but yes, we were both involved the whole time.


Tribeca: Do you think CeaseFire has been able to move the needle in Chicago? Is it having a tangible effect?


Alex Kotlowitz: I don’t think there’s any question that it is; the question is about how much. There was a study done by the Department of Justice that went out to certain neighborhoods; they found a decrease in shootings, and they were able to attribute some of that to CeaseFire’s work—like a 15-20% decrease. There still needs to be more work done to understand its efficacy in these communities, but if you spend time with people like Cobe and Eddie and Ameena, you see the difference they make on the ground—one by one by one. Clearly the work they are doing is making some difference in the lives of these communities.


The question is whether you can bring it to scale—is it something that can make a large difference in a city? It’s still a young organization, but the early results are pretty encouraging.


The Interrupters: Steve James & Alex Kotlowitz
Eddie Bocanegra, violence interrupter, courtesy of Kartemquin Films

Tribeca: Have they been able to replicate it in other cities?


Alex Kotlowitz: Yes, I think they are in roughly a dozen different cities now: Baltimore, they’re here in New York now, with an organization called Operation S.N.U.G. CeaseFire is actually abroad now, too: in South Africa, a city in Iraq…


Steve James: It’s not called CeaseFire in other cities; they are usually plugging into other organizations that want to adopt these approaches and models, which I think is good.


Tribeca: Can you tell us about a “lightning strikes” moment—for better or for worse, when you were like, “I can’t believe that just happened.”


Alex Kotlowitz: There are so many, but the one—for both of us—where you’re in that moment, like, “Wow, I can’t believe this is unfolding,” is the moment where Li'l Mikey, this 18-year-old kid, has just gotten out of prison after 3 years, and he decides he wants to go and apologize to the barbershop that he and two others robbed at gunpoint. It took a while to convince the barbershop to let him come back; they were uncertain of his motives, they were still, I think, a little angry and traumatized by that moment. I don’t think Li'l Mikey had any sense what to expect.


The Interrupters: Steve James & Alex Kotlowitz
Violence interrupter Cobe Williams and Li'l Mikey in the barbershop, courtesy of Kartemquin Films


One of the things we didn’t expect was that [one of the female victims, a mother] would be there, and she didn’t let him off the hook! She recounts almost step by the step what took place that day, to remind Li'l Mikey about what happened and how traumatized she and her children were—they thought they were going to be killed; they were all 7 of them stuffed in this little bathroom in the back. I mean, she’s going off on him. And then after that, there’s this pause, and she gets up to give him a hug, and forgives him. And you think, “My God, talk about fortitude, talk about courage!” I had tears; it was a pretty remarkable moment.


Steve James: Those amazing, moving moments are the reasons why you want to make documentaries—to bear witness to something like that. You feel so privileged to just be there, and to be filming it so other people get to see it, it’s pretty incredible.


Another moment for me—to me, it’s one of the most poetic and beautiful moments in the whole film—is when Flamo is sort of looking out the window and he’s ruminating. He’s trying to articulate—and he does it quite poetically—how he doesn’t want to be just another story in the streets. He doesn’t want to be one of those guys who’s out here getting into it with the gangbangers and the drug dealers—he wants to be one of the guys telling the story; he doesn’t want to be the story.


The Interrupters: Steve James & Alex Kotlowitz
‘Flamo’ and violence interrupter Cobe Williams, courtesy of Kartemquin Films


I get chills now just thinking about it. I remember being in that moment and thinking: What could better articulate, really, the themes of this film? It just sums up their hope… to actually see someone starting to “get it”—it’s pretty special.


Alex Kotlowitz: It’s the realization of the power of film. At the end of the movie, there’s a scene where there’s actually very little dialogue. It’s this family who’s lost their son, you see them at the gravesite, and learn that they are there everyday, and you see them barbecuing at the gravesite. For me, that’s the moment you realize the impact the loss of a life has on the people around them.


Tribeca: Is there any recidivism within the interrupters?


Steve James: Some, but it’s remarkably low. I think Tio Hardiman, who created the program, says they’ve hired something like 300 guys over the 5 or 6 years this particular part of the program’s been operating, and maybe 5 of them have gone back to the streets. And usually, they’ve gone back voluntarily—they’ve realized they shouldn’t be around, and they’ve moved on in part to protect the organization. But it’s remarkably small, considering who these guys are—


Alex Kotlowitz:—and the fact that they are the same streets that tempted them.


Steve James: They are tempted daily on the streets.



The Interrupters: Steve James & Alex Kotlowitz
Ameena Matthews (background), violence interrupter, courtesy of Kartemquin Films

The Interrupters opens Friday, July 29. Find tickets.


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