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The Interrupters (Steve James 2011) – DVD review

December 2, 2011 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Vying with Senna for the honour of being the year’s best documentary, this is out on DVD on Monday 5th December – or on BBC4 the night before.

The Interrupters Steve James best documentary of 2011

The Interrupters
(Steve James, US, 2011)

Equal parts heartbreaking and inspirational, this is a documentary which proves that a director with empathy and insight can trump movies for drama

A delegation of South Africans have arrived in Chicago to meet with Ceasefire, an organisation devoted to ‘interrupting’ Chicago gangs before street altercations turn fatal. But the visitors cannot understand how Ceasefire, which neither condoning nor complicit with the criminals, maintains its neutrality. The answer: “We’re not in the good and bad game. We’re not in that drama.”

It’d be easy to imagine The Interrupters as a Hollywood drama. Its story is unique, and exactly the bittersweet blend of uplift and tragedy that Oscar-hunting producers thrive on. Here are reformed gang members – some murderers, nearly all ex-cons – who now devote their time towards mediating conflicts in their neighbourhoods where as many youngsters are shot dead in a year as U.S. soldiers are killed in Iraq. It works because they have the experience to speak to the gangs on their own terms; in a world where respect is everything, they can calm situations that official law enforcement would inflame.

Yes, this could be a drama – and it would probably be ghastly. Instead, the reason why The Interrupters is one of the year’s most magnificent films is precisely because it isn’t a drama. It is life. Steve James, director of the pioneering Hoop Dreams, approaches the documentary format not as a reflection of reality but an extension of it. Rather than swooping in with his camera, he beds in with his subjects, gains their trust and respect over months and years. But – unlike the heroes of this film – he doesn’t interrupt. He simply watches and listens, an invisible passenger in the car. The experience is like watching an episode of Louis Theroux without Louis Theroux: because there’s nobody overly coaxing reactions out of people, the candour and bared souls before the camera come across as sincere and genuine.

What’s surprising is how grounded Ceasefire is. This isn’t a religious ‘charity begins at home’ movement but a pragmatic one, founded by a scientist specialising in diseases who is simply applying the logic that prevention is better than the cure. Yes, the individual violence interrupters are highly spiritual people, be they Muslim or Catholic, and there’s certainly an element of personal redemption driving them on. But this isn’t a film about faith, as I expect that hypothetical Hollywood drama would be, but grass-roots, door-to-door activism. In its absolute conviction that community, communication and common sense can defeat drugs and guns, it’s one of the most liberal films America has produced in recent times. Possibly, it’s even too pinko for the Academy, as the film has become a noticeable snub in the long list for the next Best Documentary Feature Oscar.

It’s shockingly real – and reality hurts. This is moving stuff, as schoolchildren break down in tears recounting the horrors they’ve witnessed…and yet, within years, they’ll become so blasé, so nihilistic about their chances, that they’ll stop to have their picture taken with the deceased peer at a funeral. The prospects of changing things seem remote – and so the Interrupters become even more extraordinary figures. Take Ameena Matthews, daughter of a famous Chicago gangster; a formidable woman capable of drilling into the kids’ guilt with laser-guided righteous anger, but whose tactile softness will build them up with love. Or Cobe Williams, patiently changing the mindset of one hothead after another, saving the world one life at a time. Or Eddie Bocanegra, a gentle, scholarly mentor whose all-too-naked remorse at his murderous past says more about the destructive powers of violence than any number of worthy, hand-wringing melodramas.

You come to care deeply about them – but, more so, about the damaged souls they meet, caught in a cycle of victimhood and aggression. Watching Cobe transform his one-time prison buddy Flamo from a figure of frightening, hair-trigger rage to a man beginning to believe in the possibility of going straight is profoundly moving, and you realise that Ceasefire isn’t just interrupting specific incidents but the underlying assumptions that govern America’s (and, if we’re honest, most countries’) social policy. As such, it doesn’t matters that The Interrupters is as one-sided a documentary as you’ll see. There’s simply no need for editorial balance here: in a world this topsy-turvy, the unassailable goodness of the Interrupters themselves becomes the checkweight.

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