NEW YORK - “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,’’ Winston Churchill once remarked of the endless rounds of diplomacy that were the life of a European statesman. But on the streets of Chicago, the line between jaw-jaw and war-war has stretched perilously thin, with verbal slights rapidly proceeding to fisticuffs, and far worse. But how to prevent the violence?
For a 2008 New York Times Magazine story, writer Alex Kotlowitz (“There Are No Children Here’’) sat in on the weekly Wednesday meetings of CeaseFire, an organization dedicated to a hands-on effort to keep the peace in Chicago. Looking around the table of “violence interrupters,’’ former gang members and felons who had rededicated their lives to preventing disputes from turning deadly, Kotlowitz was convinced that not only did he have a great magazine story, but a potential documentary as well, and “The Interrupters’’ was born.
“I like to think that writing trumps film,’’ says Kotlowitz, attempting to beat the heat on a scorching summer day in Manhattan. “But it was one of those rare moments where I thought, ‘Boy, if you could get the kind of access you’d need, it could make for a terrific film.’ ’’
Kotlowitz soon got in touch with filmmaker Steve James, whose classic 1994 documentary, “Hoop Dreams,’’ had roamed the same Chicago streets. James was drawn to CeaseFire for personal reasons. “In the intervening years since we finished ‘Hoop Dreams,’ two people that I came to know quite well and were a very important part of that film’s story - William Gates’s brother Curtis, and Arthur Agee’s father, Bo - had both been murdered,’’ says James, sitting alongside Kotlowitz. “These were senseless, ridiculous, unmotivated acts, and to see the devastating impact that had on both those families was quite tragic.’’
Kotlowitz, too, had been profoundly troubled by the murders of three of the people he had written about in “There Are No Children Here.’’ “For me,’’ says Kotlowitz, “[making the film] was just a way to try and grapple with something that’s really haunted me for almost 20 years.’’
James, who directed “The Interrupters,’’ and Kotlowitz, who served as coproducer, had initially intended to construct the film around the CeaseFire meetings, but soon found they preferred the company of the interrupters themselves. The two men, joined by coproducer and sound operator Zak Piper, talked with subjects and went on ride-alongs for an entire year.
The result is a harrowing tableau of young men stomping out their front doors, guns in hand, mothers mourning lost children, and the interrupters - Ameena, Cobe, and Eddie - themselves in constant bodily harm as they defuse disputes that turn deadly. It is also to see the possibility of redemption, even in those seemingly beyond it, and to bear witness to the hesitant first steps taken by young men and women toward a better future. “We wanted to have these interrupters be our guides, be our aperture onto these neighborhoods, and onto the violence,’’ says Kotlowitz. For the filmmakers, it was essential that they enter this world with no preconceived notions, no prepared answers. “You’ve just got to let yourself go at some point,’’ says Kotlowitz, “and just be ready to go out and film things and be ready to be surprised and knocked off balance,’’ says Kotlowitz.
If anything truly surprised James and Kotlowitz, it was how much they enjoyed making this film, somber subject matter to the contrary. “We got to hang out with people who are amazing, inspiring, funny, fun to be around,’’ says James, “and who have made this incredible journey in their lives, and we got to bear witness to people beginning their own journey in that way.’’
Cajoling, hectoring, relentlessly interrogative, interrupters like Ameena are moral arbiters by virtue of their own experiences. “They have moral authority without moralizing,’’ says James. Understanding their struggles to come to grips with their own pasts, we also understand their motivation. “What the film was able to achieve that I’m always after in my writing is this notion of empathy, and being able to put yourself in the shoes of others - in the case here, of Eddie, Ameena, and Cobe,’’ says Kotlowitz. “You really look at the world through their eyes.’’
Gentle, patient with children, and soft-spoken, Eddie is particularly compelling, but our fondness for him is complicated by the knowledge that he killed a man. “We were very drawn to this notion that he was still grappling with what he had done 13 years earlier, and trying to find a way to forgive himself,’’ says Kotlowitz.
“Hoop Dreams’’ is about, among other things, watching highly gifted young men perform, and “The Interrupters,’’ too, sees its subjects as performers, impressed with their ability to use words to prevent tragedy from striking. “The Interrupters’’ is a film predicated on the assumption that the business of the violence mediator and filmmaker both require that “you gotta drown yourself in the people,’’ as one of the interrupters puts it. For James and Kotlowitz, it meant getting beyond the easy moralizing of outsiders in order to understand what motivated troubled young men and women to turn to violence. “A big goal of this film,’’ says James, “is to try and humanize the people here so that people in the middle class see the profound differences between their lives and these people’s lives, but they also see some very universal connections between them as people who have hopes and dreams like anybody else.’’
The film takes this task seriously, diving into the deep end of its petty disputes. It also prefers to unceremoniously thrust its audience into the maelstrom with no mediation or explanation, beginning with a no-holds-barred fracas that leaves one teenage boy’s teeth knocked out. “One of the things we’re very conscious of is that in the early part of the film, we throw you into it without all the context,’’ says James. “Our hope is you might have that visceral [negative] reaction at the beginning of the movie, but then as you progress through the movie, you come to understand [that] those people don’t want to do that either.’’
Saul Austerlitz can be reached at email@example.com