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The Interrupters (FRONTLINE)
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The Interrupters follows three individuals who with bravado, humility, and even humor, work to protect their Chicago communities from the violence they once employed. From acclaimed director Steve James and bestselling author Alex Kotlowitz, this is an intimate journey into the stubborn persistence of violence in our cities.
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'The Interrupters' is an excellent documentary about a group called CeaseFire, which primarily employs streetwise, ex-cons as 'Violence Interrupters' on the tough streets of inner city Chicago. The 'Interrupters' are reformed criminals who know the lingo of the street and go around trying to defuse potential confrontations from occurring, cooling down members of their community, who often become enraged due to minor sleights which are misinterpreted as major signs of disrespect.
The group is led by Tio Hardiman, an ex-petty street criminal who later earned a Master's Degree and now heads a "Mission Impossible" team who are 'on call' to nip any potential violent incident in the bud. Remarkably, during a staff meeting shown at the beginning of the documentary, a fight develops right outside where the Interrupters are discussing strategy, and they rush out to quell the violence which involves one youth threatening another with a knife.
'The Interrupters' focuses on the lives of three members: Ameena Matthews, an ex-Gang enforcer, now a spiritual Muslim, who has communication skills as good as any highly-trained social worker; Cobe Williams, who served 12 years for Drug Trafficking and Attempted Murder, now a gentle family man, and Eddie Bocanegra, who was incarcerated 14 years for murder, now a talented artist.
We follow these 'Interrupters' as they work on various 'assignments', troubled individuals (a good number of them young people), who are prone to acting out behavior. Matthews acts as a grief counselor for a family whose son was murdered, a case which was widely publicized on Youtube and received national attention. She speaks at the funeral and we see the devastating effect the murder had on the victim's family members. Matthews also counsels a teenager named Caprysha, who ends up back at a youth facility at film's end. She concedes that not all their interventions will be successful. In the case of Caprysha, she appears to vacillate between good conduct and bad (although I read on google that she eventually earned her high school diploma).
Cobe Williams works with two brothers who can't seem to stop fighting with one another and later gets good results with a neighborhood hothead, 'Flamo', who wants to take revenge on some thugs who beat up one of his relatives. Williams manages to calm him down and in the last segment, we see 'Flamo' has obtained a job as a security guard and is wearing the uniform, ready to head off for work.
Eddie Bocanegra not only teaches art to elementary school students but also works with a young parolee, who was sent away three years for armed robbery. There's an emotional scene where he returns to the scene of his crime, a beauty salon, and apologizes to the victims. One victim accepts his apology but still makes it clear that his actions had a devastating effect on her life. The young man eventually obtains a job as a gardener at a school and is proud that he has put his violent past behind him. Eddie would like to apologize to the family of the victim he murdered, but indicates the family is perhaps not ready to forgive him.
While 'The Interrupters' do valiant work, one wonders how effective they are at what they're doing. One Interrupter concedes that their work is only a 'band aid' and the violence simply continues unabated, all over this country. The Interrupters admit that you can't work with someone who ultimately doesn't want to change.
Steve James, known for the award-winning documentary 'Hoop Dreams', has done an excellent job showcasing the noble aims of this group. Sometimes I felt that 'The Interrupters' could have been a tad bit shorter, especially toward the end. But all in all, it's a fascinating look at how one group attempts to deal with the plague of violence, in their own community.
Like James's earlier "Hoop Dreams", this movie is not purely about happy-sappy feel-good endings; there's progress, there's frustration, and you know that tomorrow will bring gunshots and ambulances and crying mothers within blocks of where this was all filmed. But the way this group of brave people worked to make small differences (that can add up to big changes) left me awed. Cobe and Ameena and Eddie will stick with you as examples of what young hoodlums can grow up to be ... and why we shouldn't give up on even "hopeless" kids.
Yeah, the movie did run a bit long, but I was so glad I stuck with it to hear the incendiary "Flamo" talk about how one interrupter was so persistent, like a fly buzzing around his ear while he slept. In a Hollywood movie, that might have sounded bogus, but here it's so real and inspiring that your breath might just catch in your throat.
My highest recommendation - SEE IT!
Similarly, my own family (adults and pre-teens) were so focused when I showed it to them a day later. It is a must see for everyone and a double must see for Muslim female youth who are interested in seeing a Muslim woman making a huge difference in her life and the lives of others....despite her "checkered past". Having lived and taught in Chicago when gang violence was a regular thing in the early 90s, this documentary makes the situation real to people who have never experienced such violence in their personal lives or in their communities.
Perpetrators are often victims themselves, and this film provides ample evidence that it is possible to interrupt violence even in the most extreme cases. We get to see this in action as the camera crew goes into real situations of conflict and the full stop, on-the-spot cycle breaking that Ameena Matthews and other Interrupters do in some of the most difficult and complex scenarios, risking their own lives to help retrieve people from the endless cycle of gang violence and murder.