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The Interrupters

The new documentary from director Steve James and co-producer Alex Kotlowitz sets out to focus on gang violence in Chicago

The Interrupters is a documentary Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz made about gang violence in Chicago and about how members of the community are attempting to heal the wounds within their society. Epidemiologist Gary Slutkin has a history of working with diseases like AIDS, mainly working in Africa and applies the same rules of ‘infection’ to human behaviour as he does to viral infection and does work in troubled communities through his organisation.

The interrupters are ex-gang members who work within the community mediating conflicts as they happen, by talking to the people involved and mentoring them into employment. An eye-opening and moving film giving an insight into life in the ghetto in Chicago and also showing the differences that can be made by giving back to the community. We spoke to director Steve James, director of the Oscar-nominated Hoop Dreams about the making of the new film.

Dazed Digital: How did you find out about the Interrupters?
Steve James:
Alex Kotlowitz and I have been friends for many years, he’s a writer here in the states and then he’s been wanting to do a film together and I read a piece in the New York Times Magazine about Ceasefire and I thought that this would be something we could do. Part of the article was on the Interrupters program.

DD: What made you want to make a documentary about Ceasefire and the Interrupters?
Steve James:
Well I was fascinated by what I read about their approach, I thought it was very interesting, the underpinning philosophically about what Dr Slutkin had come up with but I was also particularly taken with the notion of the Interrupters program within Ceasefire, which was created by Tio Hardiman.

DD: Did you have experience of gang violence?
Steve James:
For me personally, going back to Hoop Dreams… Arthur Agee from that film, his father was murdered in 2004, William Gates’ brother Curtis was murdered in 2001. These were both men that I came to know quite well. In the case of Bo, Arthur’s Dad, I maintained close relations with him over the years. Seeing the impact the murders had on those two families was devastating.

DD: The community seemed very open to being filmed and speaking about their lives? What degree of resistance did you meet in persuading people to take part in the film?
Steve James: Well it was interesting. When I first talked to Alex about the idea of doing a film, he liked the idea but he said, my biggest concern is, will it be possible to get the kind of access to the mediations on the street? Because he had trouble even doing a print piece. We met with Ceasefire and the Interrupters and we came away from those initial meetings thinking it was worth taking a leap.

DD: How did you start to set things up?
Steve James:
What we did was to set ground rules, one was we weren’t expecting Interrupters to get us into mediations where it would in any way compromise the work or compromise anybody’s safety. And when we were in there filming, in nearly every case, coupled with the trust they had in Cobe, Ameena and Eddie, they just went with it.

DD: What kind of a difference do you think they, the interrupters, are making?
Steve James:
I think what struck us was how effective they can be in these situations not just in mediating the conflict at that initial stage where tempers are high and people are angry but then I think what made them brilliant in the work they do is that it didn’t stop there. Having put out the fire, they followed up. And really I think that’s in follow up that real effective behaviour change happens along the lines of what Gray Slutkin is trying to do.

DD: As the majority of the people working with Ceasefire have been involved in gang life would you say that this has a wider healing affect on the community that simply stopping violent incidents on the streets?
Steve James:
I think that’s right yeah, some of the Interrupters that you only see in the film but what’s possible. Also, many of these people carry big reputations in a very negative way and they had one kind of respect from that and the respect that they have now is two fold, as in this is who they were and this is who they are now. A key thing behind this is that if you think of violence as mimicking a disease you can change the behaviour of some people and they can, in turn, affect the behaviours of others.

DD: Do you think that making the documentary meant that some of the people the Interrupters were trying to help stuck with it for longer?
Steve James:
Yeah, I think for a lot of these folks at the juncture they at I their lives they are really in need of mentorship. They need someone who can give them advice that they’re willing to listen to. I think people just saying ‘you matter’ can make a huge difference.

DD: Do you think the problems stemming from these ghettos in America can be solved?
Steve James: Ameena (one of the Interrupters) said in the film that if you wake up in the morning and you’re wearing hand me down clothes and there’s nothing for breakfast and your moms’ boyfriend has abused you by the time you get to school and someone bumps into you that’s really all it takes. And it’s really not about the person who bumped into you at all it’s about all those other factors, that really speaks to me.