The Interrupters

In Films by Brock Bourgase

In many respects, The Interrupters showcases the dichotomy of documentary filmmaking: the execution of the film is flawed but the story is spellbinding. Shot over the course of a year, the documentary follows “Violence Interrupters” affiliated with the group Cease Fire as the roam the streets of Chicago’s most at-risk neighborhoods, mediating confrontations and diffusing dangerous situations. The group’s goal is two-fold: to reduce violence as much as possible because acts of violence beget violence and lobby to address some of the root causes of which violence is a symptom.

The group is founded by a doctor named Gary Slutkin who believes that gang violence is similar to a disease and is applying a public health model to curtail its spread will reduce its impact. When violence occurs, Interrupters reach out and attempt to calm down the situation and prevent revenge attacks. Slutkin believes that violence is not so much a unique problem but something that arises as a result of complex social issues. If citizens have decent housing, honest jobs and hope for the future, they will not resort to the gang activity which has negatively affected so many lives in North American cities.

The outreach workers are parolees who try to convince others to break the cycle. They know the result of a life of crime and they hope others will not follow the same path that they did. Each Interrupter has their own unique story and could be the subject of their own documentary. They take this experience, which provides credibility in impoverished communities dominated by gangs and strive to make a difference in as many lives as possible.

The film features a half-dozen threads that unfold throughout the year. Not every case is a success and some require more work than others but even small victories are celebrated. It can be an overwhelming task; despite their best efforts the Interrupters face outbreaks of violence, funerals for teenagers and self-destructive behaviour among those they are trying to help. As hard as the Interrupters, they cannot be with these young people twenty-four hours a day and frequently emotions boil over on short notice.

Some conflicts are more long-term, such as two school districts which merged and created rival cliques. The Interrupters try to talk about other options to violence but not everyone is willing to take a chance on compromise, tolerance and piece. Other cases are more unique: one person is so angry about a perceived slight that they want to retaliate immediately. When the Interrupters arrive, the individual throws his phone out the window because he only possesses two hands but has three things that he wants to hold (gun, bottle of vodka and phone).

These situations captivate the viewer. Some members of the audience at the Bell T.I.F.F. Lightbox could not believe what was transpiring whereas others laughed at the absurdity of some moments. The widening disparity between rich and poor seems to create more and more negative consequences by the day. If people have no hope for the future and expect to die by age thirty, how can we expect them to act sensibly and contribute to society? The sooner this changes, the better but sometimes the sea on the time has no way of turning.

The story is so engaging that one can overlook the technical flaws of the film. At times, the camera angle changes abruptly or a scene is poorly lit. Perhaps these are the result of filming at night in dangerous situations but it seems as if careful editing could have made the work more consistent. The subtitles are intrusive and assume the audience cannot remember a character’s name a mere ten minutes after they previously appeared. Still, compared to other recent documentaries featuring trite topics such as swimming the Amazon River or underground poker in Toronto, viewers should congratulate director Steve James for bringing this relevant story to the theatres. ***½