Monday, September 19, 2011

The Interrupters (2011)


The Interrupters is frustrating.  The three ‘violence interrupters’ which this documentary follows must have an endless supply of optimism and an iron will to go out there every day and try and convince people, who mostly are not looking to be convinced, that there are better choices than resorting to violence and revenge.  A normal person would give up, probably on the first day, but not the CeaseFire interrupters. 
Most of CeaseFire’s violence interrupters are ex-cons.  This is actually a plus on their job application for a position like this.  They know firsthand the consequences and utter futility which comes with choosing the violent option in an argument on the street.  Their goal is to intervene in an argument’s ‘front end’ before pistols are drawn from waistbands. 
Chicago has drawn national attention for the number of murders which happen on its streets every year, especially involving adolescents.  The Interrupters follows a year in the life not just of the CeaseFire organization, but specifically three of their most committed mediators.  The most engaging and interesting person by far is Ameena Matthews.  She is the daughter of Jeff Fort, one of Chicago’s most notorious gangsters, who made mistakes in her youth but is now out in force and ready to get in your face to show you just how wrong a choice violence is.  With no fear, Ameena will walk in the middle of a large group of young gangbangers and give them a lecture on just where they are headed.  Amazingly, these lectures usually work.  You do not want to disappoint Ameena Matthews; she is one of the most persuasive and enigmatic people ever to show up in a documentary.
Her fellow mediators are not as engaging as she is though.  Cobe Williams is usually an interesting guy to follow, especially when he is trying to calm down a man known as ‘Flamo’.  Flamo has a particularly bad day when he first meet him and appears to be 100% ready to charge down the block and start a shooting spree.  Cobe listens, nods his head, and then offers to take Flamo out to dinner thereby putting some distance and time between him and his problems.  We check in with Flamo every now and then and he provides some segments of comic relief and even some hope. 
The third mediator is Eddie Bocanegra.  He comes in a distant third on this list of three.  Most of the time, he is with the family of a deceased young man who made some poor choices and ended up in a coffin.  Eddie strikes up a relationship with the boy’s sister and encourages her to draw to deal with her grief.  The rest of the time, Eddie leads an art class in a local elementary school to teach the kids who are just a few years away from their prime ages of vulnerability to think through their choices to their logical conclusions.  Eddie is never shown actually talking down violent situations like Ameena and Cobe are.  He acts as more of a peripheral mediator rather than a down in the mud violence buffer, at least that is how the editing process shows him. 
The filmmaker, Steve James (Hoop Dreams), checks in with various at risk youth throughout the year.  Some start off in very shaky and turbulent places but steadily pull themselves up and out of the gutter.  Others, however, leave you shaking your head at the end acknowledging that there will most likely be many more failures for the mediators than successes.  Happy endings really do seem few and far between in the streets of Chicago, even when there are extremely persuasive interrupters who guarantee that if you pull the trigger, you will not win in the end. 

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