Monday 8 August 2011

The Interrupters

"Violence interrupters have one goal in mind, to save a life."

Weird how things work out. Today I saw the new film from documentary filmmaker Steve James, "The Interrupters". You may remember his incredible documentary 'Hoop Dreams', which is widely regarded as one of the all time great documentaries.

'The Interrupters' is about gangs in Chicago. It's about violence interrupters, mostly former convicts, who go out on the street with the sole aim of stopping lives from being lost. The very brave Steve James put himself into the firing line and went out and documented their work.

I made the plans to see an advance screening earlier in the week, when everything was normal. And then London started burning, and disorder became a sudden and unexpected norm. And suddenly this film took on far more meaning for me than could have been anticipated.

Civil unrest is weird. If we have equilibrium, we always think things are okay. But tension and conflict will always bubble up at some point. This week it did. The young people of London are ruthlessly and disgustingly setting fire to our town. Small businesses are up in flame, historic buildings are burning down, and people's homes are vanishing. It all feels so senseless. It is senseless.

But it has a context. These things aren't random. If they were random, it would be ME looting and rioting. But it's not. You have to begin to ask why --- why those young people? What are their lives like? Steve James says that you can't ignore the socioeconomic context. You can't ignore the cuts. The lack of jobs. Everything has its context. And that doesn't condone a shooting, or a riot, but it does help explain it.

That's why 'The Interrupters' is great. It shows the reality of gangs in Chicago. They're not just gangsters who want to shoot each other up. They're people who get pushed around, who can't get work, who have nowhere to turn. The statistics about poverty in black communities in America is astonishing, and the divide in wealth between blacks and whites is bigger than it's been in 25 years. 'The Interrupters' shows us people trying to get on with their lives. Trying to survive in their own environment. That's why it's so riveting. We can easily find ourselves in the privileged position of being able to ignore these issues, of sweeping them aside -- or perhaps, more commonly, just being unaware. 

This is a film that brings the issues front and centre.

We live in troubled times. 'The Interrupters' reminds us not to judge people until we've seen the full picture. Documentaries like this are important because they show us the truth, what's happening down on the ground, and it's not filtered through the eyes of news organizations with vested interests. 

Additional points: 

1) The key scene is one where, fresh out of jail, a young man returns to the scene of his crime a few years later, to apologise to the family for what he did. 

And I think he expects them to accept his apology, which in the end they do -- but not before they explain to him in detail the effect he has had on their lives, and how it affects them still, every day. 

It's the most powerful scene you'll see all year. Here's this boy who was in his mid-teens and pulled a gun on a family and thought only of himself. And now, years later, he sees it from their point of view. 


2) I asked Steve James if he would ever follow up on 'Hoop Dreams'. I already knew the answer and he confirmed it. That ship has sailed. The boys are leading different lives now. The story is complete. He also mentioned that 'The Interrupters' seems like a bookend to that story. 

3) One of the things that inspired 'The Interrupters' was that both of the families from 'Hoop Dreams' had tragic, senseless, crime-related deaths in the years proceeding the documentary's release. Steve wanted to dig further into that. There were important stories to tell.

4) This is only going to get a limited release theatrically. Try and catch it.

Care to share?


  1. As I've said before I don't know where you dig up these gems but I'm glad you do.

  2. I finally watched this film, after remembering that you did this post on it. Incredible film, so glad you recommended it and I watched it :)