Great docs: The Interrupters
Early in October, I was lucky enough to catch The Interrupters at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, a documentary produced by academy award winning director Steve James (though it is no longer playing at the Lightbox, a list of future screenings can be found at the film's website). As a note, TIFF generally screens films throughout the year, often with the director in attendance, and often presents special themed screenings. I totally recommend checking out their list of current and future showings. For the same price as going to Cineplex or AMC, you can't go wrong.
The Interrupters focuses on a group called ‘CeaseFire’ who work in their native Chicago neighborhoods to diffuse violence and aggression between rival gangs, friends, and even brothers. Violent confrontations can be everyday occurrences in some of Chicago's neighborhoods and arise from as simple of an event as making eye contact with the ‘wrong’ individual. CeaseFire spends their nights out on the streets trying to stop violence before it happens, by placing themselves where such events are likely to occur, and in essence, putting themselves in danger.
The film opens with a scene showing a young being hit by a rock by two gang members in the middle of a residential street in broad daylight. Ameena, a CeaseFire member (pictured above), works to diffuse the situation after being notified by witnesses, and does so just before the injured man's sister returns with a butcher’s knife. Such occurrences, we are told, are extremely common in some parts of Chicago, demonstrating how easily violence can be ignited and escalated. Throughout the film, similar events are discussed and examined, either in a proactive sense or in a reactive one. Steve James does a wonderful job identifying the scale of violence in Chicago, and the need for CeaseFire and similar programs by making the film very raw through a combination of tense ‘action’ moments and intimate personal ones.
Ameena and 3 other CeaseFire members are the central figures in the film. Many members come from troubled pasts, each having a unique story of how they've managed to put the trouble behind them. For each individual we learn about their past as we follow their CeaseFire efforts around Chicago. For example, Ameena's father was a former gang leader, and had the criminal lifestyle introduced to her at a young age. As Ameena aged, she eventually became a drug dealer, joining the violent criminal world. Only through some maturing experiences was she able to move past a violent and troubled life and realize the need for action in addressing Chicago’s violence. There are several other similar stories discussed in the film, and used by Steve James to allow the viewer to see how similar the CeaseFire members are to those they are trying to help. This demonstrates wonderfully how even the role models of this turbulent community have stumbled in their respective pasts. These sorts of events are a fact of life. What truly shapes an individual is how they deal with such moments and events, during and after the fact.
A particularly influential moment for me was centered around the murder of a young teenager during a street brawl after school. A passerby happened to stop and record the incident on their personal camera, which then proceeded to go viral on the internet, bringing a media storm to Chicago. As I sat there and watched this, I remembered distinctly being in the 4th year of my undergrad when this took place and how I was drawn to the incident then. Something about this incident tore at me back then, just as it did again while watching the film this time around. I couldn’t believe that this honor-roll high-schooler’s life ended this way. I was struck then and again in the film by how unacceptable such a thing was and still is. I thought to myself how this was not something anyone growing up should have to experience, and yet, it didn't seem to be a priority issue for the government to address. The incident started because the kids were from different neighborhoods and, due to funding cutbacks, had been forced to go to the same school. Imagine showing up to school one day and being attacked because you're from the north side of the road, while everyone else is from the south. Where this documentary comes in is with CeaseFire’s effort to console the mother of the killed boy and to mitigate any retaliation from the family, as the boys who committed the offence had been identified through the video. If any scene in the film demonstrates just how important CeaseFire and of Steve James’ effort to raise awareness is, it’s likely this one.
Okay, enough with my attempt to give you a summary of this eye-opening documentary. Go check it out yourself! This film has opened my mind to how rampant violence can become in such a wonderful city and how valuable locals can be in diffusing such violence and hopefully changing social-patterns in the long run. Please, check out the website, try to attend a screening (when it returns to Toronto) or buy it when a distribution is available, just go and watch it!
Thanks for reading my inaugural post of what I hope to turn into a series (though not a regular one) about awesome documentaries. I will try to focus on those shown in Toronto (and post ahead of time before the screening period ends) or that are easily accessible on the web. I also encourage you to send me recommendations of documentaries others have seen, by commenting on this post.