Big Screen Berkeley: The Interrupters

Ameena Matthews, a violence interrupter in the new documentary "The Interrupters". Photo courtesy of Kartemquin Films

Documentary filmmaking is intrusive by nature: filmmakers must gain the trust and respect of their subjects long before the cameras begin to roll. In the early ‘90s, documentarian Steve James earned the trust of Chicago’s Gates and Agee families, resulting in 1994’s Academy Award-nominated Hoop Dreams. No one-trick pony, James demonstrated similar skill with 2002’s Stevie, in which he revisited a deeply troubled young man he’d previously mentored as a Big Brother.

In his latest film, The Interrupters (opening this coming Friday, September 2, at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas), the director takes his game to the next level. James casts his net wider: instead of focusing on one or two major characters, he follows half a dozen — and the subject matter exposes him to considerable risk.

The Interrupters are Chicagoans working for CeaseFire, an organization tasked with stemming the tide of violence inundating the Windy City. CeaseFire founder Gary Slutkin is an epidemiologist who approaches violence as a scientist and considers it a public health issue — a disease that infects and kills inner city youth.

James’ camera accompanies several ‘violence interrupters’ as they go about their business. Young adults well acquainted with the ways of the street, the interrupters are trained to anticipate and tamp down minor problems — perceived slights, unpaid debts, he-said-she-said arguments — before they spiral out of control. Early in the film a fistfight threatens to escalate into something much worse, and it takes the intervention of CeaseFire worker Ameena Matthews to keep the peace.


A former gang enforcer whose drug lord father was once rumored to have plotted terrorist attacks with Moammar Ghaddafi, Matthews is now a practicing Muslim and a devout adherent to CeaseFire’s principles. Matthews specializes in finding the soft spot — not, she stresses, the weak spot — in local hard cases and using that insight to relieve the tension that might otherwise lead to violence.

Though the fearless Matthews becomes the film’s focal point, other interrupters are prominently featured, including Cobe Williams, a soft-spoken gangbanger whose father was murdered when he was eleven; Tio Hardiman, a street hustler who earned a living selling fake drugs; and Eddie ‘Bandit’ Bocanegra, a car thief who spent 14 years behind bars for murder. Though now reformed, their criminal pasts are what give interrupters the credibility they need to reach at-risk youth.

It’s easy to watch The Interrupters and forget that you’re watching a documentary — not because its stories and characters are unbelievable or overly dramatic, but because James’ camera is right in the middle of everything. When an angry young man is filmed pounding on a young woman’s windows, when ex-cons pile into a car with a camera in the front seat, and when a tough guy aptly named Flamo prepares to pack some heat in order to get revenge against a perceived snitch, it becomes clear that James has some impressive people skills.

The Interrupters aren’t magicians, and their efforts sometimes go for naught, but there’s evidence that CeaseFire is on to something. A three-year Department of Justice study concluded that the program has significantly reduced shootings and killings in Chicago. For other cities contending with seemingly intractable violence, it appears to be a model worth emulating.

If you happen to know a local public official or police chief, you might want to treat them to a ticket.

John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

Related: UC Berkeley will hold a community forum Sept. 6. Experts, including the producer of The Interrupters, will discuss attempts to break the cycle of violence. The forum will be at the David Brower Center from 7 to 8:30 pm.