Friday, October 14, 2011

Trying To Stop the Killing: Steve James’ The Interrupters

Good documentaries do two things well. They introduce us to stories we should know about (Watermarks, Marwencol), or go deeper behind the scenes of items on the news (Capturing the Friedmans, Inside Job) and they tell us those stories in an innovative and compelling manner often bolstered by their idiosyncratic directors. Would Cave of Forgotten Dreams be as interesting if it wasn't narrated by director Werner Herzog himself? His accented, quirky and wry delivery makes the film stand out from your run-of-the-mill narration. Other fine docs, like Project Nim, tell their tales using the best narrative techniques, including probing interviews and deft use of montage. But sometimes talented filmmakers compromise their talents to, understandably, get their story told. That's the unfortunate case with The Interrupters.

Just a few minutes into The Interrupters, the new documentary from Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie) and I knew I wasn’t in Toronto anymore. That’s because a news report stated that Chicago had just logged 124 murders in about the same number of days. Toronto’s never even had an annual murder rate in the three figures. More shocking than that disturbing statistic was the fact that so many of the murders were those of young people killed by other young people, usually African-American men barely out of their teens and sometimes not even that. The Interrupters – which was co-produced by James and author Alex Kotlowitz, whose award-winning biography There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America sparked the idea for the film – tries to find a silver lining amidst the continuous horror by profiling three members of CeaseFire, part of the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention. The trio work as violence interrupters, literally interceding whenever violence seems imminent and trying to talk the angry participants out of taking it to the next level, namely gun use. The two men and one woman in the film are unique in that they come from gang backgrounds themselves, and thus have a street cred other well meaning folks lack. Over the course of a year, The Interrupters follows the three (Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra) as they interact with potential assailants, speak about their views on what they do and slowly try to chip away at their city’s escalating murder rate. They do so as local politicians mouth platitudes about what needs to be done, and then show only the most concern whenever negative publicity about the murders threatens tourism. (Having been to Chicago, I certainly wasn’t aware how bad things really were elsewhere in the city. The beautiful downtown core, where I stayed, felt very safe.)

Ameena Matthews

Of the three main subjects of the film, Matthews is the most compelling. Daughter of a notorious gang leader, a budding criminal herself in her younger years, she’s now a convert to Islam, married to an imam, with two kids of her own. But like Williams and Bocanegra, who works mostly within his Latino community, it’s her determination to make a difference that stands out the most, even though the outlook remains grim. It’s one of the film’s (inadvertent) contradictions that it wants to give the impression that the interrupters are having more of a positive effect than the actual facts seem to bear out. (The murder rate seems to be, if anything, climbing steadily.) That’s most apparent in the saddened comments from a black funeral home owner, who once chauffeured Dr. Martin Luther King and who’s buried most of the murdered children. He points out, that despite a black president, a reality he never imagined ever witnessing, innocent black children are still dying in great numbers in the United States, which is something that doesn’t make sense to him – or to most of us, actually. (Tellingly, most of the shooting victims are not in gangs but become caught up in the violence emanating from the frustration of no jobs and bleak futures. Equally revelatory, certainly from a Canadian point of view, is how no one ever suggests that maybe getting rid of the guns could ameliorate the dire situation. That vital gun control debate seems to be a non-starter in present day America.)

I wish though that The Interrupters was better cinema. Funded through PBS, and to be shown on its documentary series Frontline early in 2012, James’ documentary is, like all Frontline docs, sober, serious, well made and unimaginative in its presentation. Of course, its intent to educate and inform is laudable and necessary, especially since the American commercial TV networks don't make very many documentaries anymore, but as James’ previous docs proved, you can tell a riveting tale without sacrificing a cinematic style that enhances your story. The documentary is also structured in an obviously scripted manner with segments for each season; and containing an epilogue, a format which feels a trifle manipulative, even pat. And on television, with its explicit language likely censored, it will feel even less gritty. The Interrupters is a truthful, disturbing and worthwhile film, but its sleek, slick and conventional veneer ultimately lessens its impact.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, and beginning today will be teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. Also beginning Monday, he'll be teaching Genre Movies at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto .

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