In a rare moment of movie magic in “The Interrupters,” Tio Hardiman describes a beating he endured as a teen while a picture of him from grade school appears onscreen, the gap between the broad smile he displays as a youngster and the tenor of his voice as an adult telling you exactly why you’re in the right place as an audience member, and why so many others are in the wrong one in confronting the issue of inner city violence in America.
“You have to immerse yourself in the bullshit,” says Hardiman, who was a former drug addict and street hustler before getting a college education and returning to the streets as a member of CeaseFire, an organization that has become an intermediary amongst the volatile gangs of inner city Chicago to prevent violence from escalating beyond verbal sparring. Built out of former gang members by Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who believed the spread of violent behavior was the same as an infectious disease, the group known as “The Interrupters” isn’t tied to local authorities or bound up by bureaucracy, which has left them as the most likely candidates to not only break up any potential fights, but the very cycle of sons and daughters following their parents into a life of revenge, drugs and ultimately dead ends in both the literal and figurative sense.
Ironically, the power of Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz’s incredible documentary is the fact that it’s unmediated. Like James’ previous films “Hoop Dreams” and “Stevie,” the access the filmmakers get is extraordinary, particularly through the eyes of three Interrupters — Ameena, the religiously-reformed daughter of one of Chicago’s legendary gang leaders, Eddie, an ex-con who in his words is “paying with his life” for taking the life of another as he tries to get an education, and Cobe, a man whose father was murdered and still followed in his footsteps before finding peace in domestic life.
Cameras follow the three into real-time conflicts and classrooms, trying to educate young men and women from personal experience about the toll that the street life has taken on them and often find themselves speaking to people with personal loss of their own. (One specifically heartwrenching scene shows Bocanegra speaking in front of an elementary school class and one young girl breaks down into tears as she describes the time she heard shots fired from the house next door.) Though the filmmakers do indulge in very minor touches to the largely unadorned scenes that play out on screen — the way names are presented next to every street corner and gravesite where a stack of teddy bears, balloons and empty bottles of Hennessy sits to commemorate the dead – “The Interrupters” unfolds so naturally that the film achieves its call to arms (or just the opposite, in fact) by allowing the weight of every situation to sink in without cutting away from anyone who wants to voice an opinion.
The only side that isn’t very present here, and sadly it’s because they’re equally absent offscreen, is that of the system that’s failed so many of the generations growing up in Chicago, and undoubtedly elsewhere. Many have compared “The Interrupters” to the HBO series “The Wire,” which had five seasons to do what James and Kotlowitz’s have just two hours to accomplish and still, it's every bit as engrossing. But rather than directly address the deterioration and frustration amongst the local institutions that has prevented them from being more effective as outreach for those who’ve been dealt such a tough hand, the film’s omission of the government entities is what speaks volumes, save for a scene where Arne Duncan and Eric Holder hold press conferences following the nationally newsworthy murder of 16-year-old South Side honors student Derrion Albert, and the reports that Illinois may bring in the National Guard to patrol the streets, which only make them look foolish. Instead, it’s in the hands of smaller organizations such as CeaseFire to make a difference and filmmakers such as James and Kotlowitz to spread their stories, both doing their best to change the narrative.
"The Interrupters" opens today at the Nuart Theater in West Los Angeles where CeaseFire founder Garry Slutkin and Tio Hardiman will appear for Q & As on August 26th and 27th. It continues to play at the IFC Center in New York and a full list of national screenings can be found here.