Posted: 09/04/2011


The Interrupters

by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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The Interrupters is a new indie film that shows the efforts of the CeaseFire violence prevention organization and their staff members as they go throughout Chicago neighborhoods—Englewood, Roseland, Pilsen, and others—trying to bring peace.

The movie covers a year in the life of gangbanging in Chicago, 2010, when “as many people died in Chicago from urban violence as those soldiers who died in Iran.” I saw the film at the recent 17th Annual Black Harvest International Festival of Film and Video at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and I also attended a question and answer session about the film, where Alex Kotlowitz and Steve James, the principals behind the film, were featured.

But the star of the film, if there is to be one, is Ameena Matthews, who is the daughter of imprisoned gang leader Jeff Fort, and who by her own admission has had a pretty rough life. But she has turned all of the bad things that may have happened to her around in order to help others as an interrupter, one who goes into the thick of gang dissension and warfare to help talk sense into young black and Latino men’s heads, and young black women, as well, in the case of Kapryshia, whom Ameena is compelled to help survive Chicago’s mean streets.
But it wasn’t easy to go into gang territory and win favor with members in order to try to save their lives, but the CeaseFire group does a commendable job in the midst of the chaos.
Ameena was at one of the Black Harvest screenings and said that she dared intervene because no one stood up for her. A great deal of the more than two hour doc covers the case of Fenger High School student Derrion Albert, whose savage beating at the hands of other Fenger students was broadcast around the world via Ameena was applauded for her gracious work with Albert’s family during their time of pain, as well as for her presence at the teenager’s funeral.

James said that while the media wants to refer to them as gangs, gang members most likely refer to themselves as cliques. He added that one of the other interrupters, Cobe Williams, received favorable acceptance for their project within the neighborhood when he dropped the names of previous Kotlowitz and James projects, such as the “There Are No Children Here,” and “Hoop Dreams.”

The one-year project documented what goes on in gang-infested communities, and the writers said, “It is one of promise and [in the end] you know that something can be done.
As documentaries go, The Interrupters does a good job of getting to the root of the problem—gang violence—and its effects without a lot of politics getting in the way. They start off with a scene from Englewood, 63rd and Ashland, as some young boys have gotten into a fight and seek to exact their own brand of revenge. Ameena and crew go into the home and peacefully talk the victim into not taking matters into his own hands.

The Interrupters also shows the grass-roots efforts of Tio Hardiman, director of CeaseFire, and Cobe (an interrupter from the suburbs, with a teddy-bear built and personality) trying to intervene in a family where the two sons are at each other’s throats, because they are from rival gangs. It has gotten so bad that the mother has moved out of the apartment—not telling either son her new address.

Another colorful gang member is Flamo, who is pissed off with police officers, who came into his home and ended up hand cuffing and arresting his mother. He is seething when Cobe finally catches up with him. But throughout the documentary, Flamo calms down and even finds a job—as none other than a security guard—before all is said and done.

The movie follows other incidents throughout the city: in Pilsen where Eddie Bocanegra is the interrupter who heart wrenchingly follows one family who visits their son’s gravesite daily.
The Interrupters (inspired by a 2008 New York Times Magazine article by Kotlowitz) is a film worth going to see, whether you are affected by gang violence or not. The community can benefit from knowing that although they seem to gain little financial reward, the interrupters from CeaseFire gain much in knowing that they have intervened and stopped many violent acts within black and Latino communities. They are about saving lives, they say, and the documentary can attest to that! Check local listings for movie times.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.

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