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  October 21, 2011

 

Where the Violence Stops:
An interview with Alex Kotlowitz and Steve James about The Interrupters.

by Dan Lybarger

When I told a friend about the subject matter of the new documentary The Interrupters, which opens today at the Tivoli, he thought I was describing something out of a science fiction story. Essentially, the film follows a group called CeaseFire, which consists of ex-convicts who go through the streets of Chicago trying to prevent assaults and murders before they happen. The concept briefly recalled images of Tom Cruise consulting with psychics in the Philip K. Dick-inspired movie Minority Report.

 

Alex Kotlowitz and Steve James (photo by Aaron Wickenden, courtesy of Kartemquin Films)

Actually, the program has been inspired by science fact. Epidemiologist Gary Slutkin came up with the program by considering what would happen if the techniques used to fight germs were applied to preventing violence.

 

The Interrupters follows CeaseFire for 14 months as their interrupters attempt to talk people out of committing reciprocal crimes. They aren’t around to break up gangs; their challenging but specific goal is to prevent bloodshed. According to Chicago-based journalist Alex Kotlowitz, who has written the Chicago-set non-fiction books There Are No Children Here and Never a City So Real, the neighborhoods where CeaseFire operates saw a 16 to 27 percent reduction in the number of shootings or attempted shootings.


Kotlowitz covered the group in a comprehensive but intimate piece in the New York Times Magazine. Fellow Windy City resident Steve James, who directed the documentaries Hoop Dreams and Stevie, took an interest in the group and teamed up with Kotlowitz for the documentary. Both are credited as producers.

I first saw the film at the True/False Documentary Festival at Columbia, MO last March, where I had the pleasure of meeting them and the interrupters themselves, Cobe Williams, Ameena Matthews and Eddie Bocanegra. The screening then and another one held last night were benefits for Aim4Peace, a Kansas City organization modeled on CeaseFire.

When I later interviewed both of James and Kotlowitz separately by phone while they were in Chicago, each of them acknowledged the other’s contribution to the film. James, who won a Directors Guild of America Award for Hoop Dreams (as well as an Oscar nomination), politely insisted that I talk with Kotlowitz before I could even ask him his first question. In turn, Kotlowitz often reiterated the ideas James discussed the day before.

The Interrupters won the Grand Jury Prize in the documentary competition at the Miami Film Festival and currently has a 99 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps Philip K. Dick’s imagination wasn’t so far off.

Dan Lybarger: You had been covering CeaseFire for six months before you started working on the film. How did you find out about it and chase it down in the New York Times.

Alex Kotlowitz: The CeaseFire bumper stickers are all around town. They’re ubiquitous. I saw them at a basketball game. After one of the games, I was talking with one of the guys I play with. It turns out that he worked for CeaseFire. I kind of gave him an earful. I thought here’s yet one more gang interventionist program, and we’ve seen this before.

When I came back the next week, I felt really bad because I didn’t give him a chance to saying anything. I said, “David, I’m really sorry I just went off.” He said, if you want to, you can visit us. And I did. That’s when I realized that there was something going on here that was unusual, unique and original. As I was there, I was taken with the theory behind it, but I was equally taken with the interrupters themselves.

Here are these guys, one of whom I knew because he actually made a brief appearance in my book. So I knew them by reputation. Not only were they likable but also I was just astonished by what they were able to accomplish. I spent a good deal of time going out with them at night. I ate with them and was with them when a drug deal had gone bad. They were sort of able to prevent a retaliation there. I was just really impressed, more impressed than I thought I would be.

DL: The most fascinating thing about CeaseFire is that it’s modeled on disease prevention instead of criminology.

AK: I’ve been tangling with (the subject of) violence ever since my first book (There Are No Children Here) came out about 20 years ago. One of the things I appreciate about CeaseFire is that it has given me a different prism to think about the violence.

I think the disease analogy is a really good one. I also think it’s limited in some ways. One of the things it does, which I really appreciate, is that it takes judgment out of the equation, and you certainly see that with the interrupters. One of the things that astonish me is how they’re able to go into these really tense, difficult situations and empathize with people without passing judgment. I admire that. I don’t think I could do that.

DL: It looks like you’d have to have a unique skill set to pull this off.

AK: There’s no question that with being an interrupter one of the things that’s required is that you’ve got a certain respect in your community. As the film shows, one of the ironies is that one of the ways you get respect in one of these communities is by being aggressive and dominating others.

It’s what has allowed Eddie, Ameena and Cobe to go back to these communities and have the admiration and respect of others and get their ear. That’s what’s so important. I couldn’t do that.

DL: (To James) What role did Alex play in making the film?

Steve James: Alex had spent six months working on the article. He had established a lot of good contacts as a result of doing the article. He had really paved the way to the film. He had earned their trust within the organization so that when we came in with the idea of doing the film, they were very receptive.

And then when we were actually in production, we decided to work very small. I’ve always worked small, but because Alex was involved, I went ahead and shot the film, which I don’t normally do, so we could keep a crew of three: me, Alex and a co-producer and sound recordist Zak Piper.

Whereas I would typically on all of my films I would be the one doing the interview, Alex went ahead and took the lead on interviews. Of course, I would throw in questions, too. I can’t help myself (laughs). But he took the lead on the interviews because that just made a lot of sense in shooting them. He’s a great interviewer and a very smart guy, so that was good thing for the film as well.

We just collaborated on how the film evolved, how it was going to be and how it’s going to come together. He was truly a creative partner and a producer on it. Sometimes producers on films play a more functional role of helping to put the production together and aren’t creatively involved. I think in documentaries, there’s a tendency for producers to be much more creatively involved than in Hollywood movies.

DL: Being there during a lot of the interruptions; did you ever fear for your safety?

SJ: I never feared for my safety. That’s due in a large part to the fact that the interrupters we were with command such respect from the communities that they work in, by us being with them, it just felt very comfortable. We felt protected.

They were also very smart about these situations. Through their life experience, they were aware of situations that might not have been good for us to be in, and they kept us out of those situations. They were very careful about that.

And then there was a situation with Eddy (Bocanegra) in one of the neighborhoods where he does a lot of his work, where he was born and raised. After we had worked there a little while, word got passed down from one of the gang leaders in the neighborhood that they didn’t really want us over there filming. They told Eddie that, and he told us that, and so we stayed out of that neighborhood. We weren’t trying to be cowboys.

In all the times I’ve been shooting in dicier neighborhoods, I’ve always been very cautious because I don’t want to be a hero. I’m a coward, basically. (laughs)

DL: At the same time, you have that jaw-dropping show in Hoop Dreams, where the father of one of the athletes smokes drugs on camera. Similarly, in the current film, the first intervention with “Flamo” is pretty eye opening as well.

SJ: I think in Hoop Dreams, we had become something of a fixture in that neighborhood. We’d been around there a lot. They knew we weren’t cops. They knew our situation and what we were up to. They didn’t take us that seriously. They figured that we were just these crazy guys with a camera. They kept doing what they were doing.

With Flamo, we were certainly taken aback by him when he first came out that door. But I think that with Cobe’s relationship with him — they had met in jail, he knew him — t felt OK. We just kind of went with it.

AK: The thing about the Flamo situation was that when were filming it, it felt incredibly tense. To be honest, I did not think Cobe was going to make much progress. It was astonishing that in just that one day, (Cobe) was able to coax him out to lunch and then to an interrupters meeting and then he’s pulled Flamo off the edge for that one day.

What became apparent to me was that with the story of Flamo was that that agitation, that rage was not necessarily a permanent state of mind. That’s clear with Flamo. He was angry at the moment, and when (Cobe) was able to pull him back down, I think Flamo was able to have a much clearer perspective on what he was about to do and why he couldn’t do it.

I think the other thing is the importance of work, of jobs. Near the end you see that work is incredibly important to Flamo, to his identity and to his sense of who he is and as a connection to the world around him. Work is so central to all this.

On camera, you see just a 180 transformation with him. No matter what you spend on this program, the return can be astonishing because you have somebody who could have been going back to prison for the rest of his life and now he’s a contributing citizen.

SJ: Yeah. Absolutely. That’s thing about doing films where you spend real time with people. We didn’t necessarily spend a lot of time with Flamo, but we were there long enough to see that transformation happen in a guy like that. That’s the sort of difference between a sort of snapshot film, where you go in for a short time and you sort of capture people in a sort of moment in time and being there for a longer haul where you can actually see change happen.

If Flamo had only made a cameo in the movie on the porch that day and later in the meeting, that would have been a hell of a cameo. That guy was pretty crazy. But the fact that we were able to see him again, further down the road, see the wheels turning that night that they went to get the chicken, where he’s thinking about the life he’s lived and whether he wants to continue and live that life. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie, that scene where he’s really grappling with who I want to be and what do I want to be in my life.

By the time we come back to him at the end of the movie, he’s got a job, and he’s clean-cut looking, but he’s still Flamo. That’s one of the joys of making documentaries like this. It gives people a sense that people can change and want to change.

It speaks to the theme of this movie, which is that people who are in these situations and people who have a history of violence — it’s not all of them or most of them, it’s not who they want to be. It’s not what they want to be. When somebody comes along like Cobe (Williams), Ameena (Matthews) or Eddie and can intercede and give them hope and opportunity to do something else, it’s amazing what people will do. Cobe, Ameena and Eddie are an example of that in their own lives.

DL: It’s also dangerous. There’s a scene where one interrupter is visiting another who has been assaulted trying to stop a fight.

AK: He tried to interrupt a situation right outside of his home. He did the right thing. He realized he wasn’t going to make any progress there, so he did what he was instructed to do, which is walk away. But it’s when he walks away that somebody turns around and shoots him in the back. One of the other things that’s so admirable about what these guys do is that they walk into these incredibly dangerous situations with absolute confidence they can somehow defuse it.

DL: After New York Congressman Peter King’s recent committee inquiries into Muslim Americans, I was wondering if he had ever met Ameena because she’s a Muslim, and she’s doing a lot to prevent urban violence. I also don’t think she’d be doing such a dangerous and challenging task if she weren’t a devout Muslim.

SJ: Right. But what can you say about that whole charade?

Ameena’s fate is a very defining part of who she is. It was a defining part of how she found herself. And it’s an ongoing defining part of her life. And you can see that.

The wonderful thing about Ameena is that she defies so many stereotypes in so many ways. She defied stereotypes when she was in the “thug life” as you can call it, as a woman who was also an enforcer. She was a force to be reckoned with. And now, she has taken all that power and charisma that she probably inherited from her father (gang leader Jeff Fort) and has turned it into a force for good, which is just remarkable.

DL: I met some of these folks in Columbia, MO and none of them look or act as if they’ve done time. Eddie looks like a teacher.

SJ: Exactly. If you look at Eddie, for example, if you look at some of the images we have of him when he was in that life, he looks very different than he does today and not just because he was younger. His whole demeanor, his posture, his outward body language, everything about him was I’m trying to be a tough guy. Basically, don’t fuck with me.

And now he’s anything but that. He’s one of the most thoughtful, sensitive guys I’ve ever met. And Cobe, his wife calls him a nerd. Back in the day, I don’t think that people called him a nerd. One of the things I think we realized in making the film was that people can change. Another way of looking at it is that they’ve come back to who they really are and who they really wanted to be to begin with, to their truer selves.

All the other stuff when they were in that life was just not who they were, that this is who they really are. There’s something almost more appealing to that, not just a semantic difference, it’s basically saying that people are essentially good and do good and through a variety of complex social and personal forces, people find themselves doing things that are bad and not good for them or good for their community.

DL: That’s interesting because their model often circumvents law enforcement.

AK: It’s not so much that they circumvent it. I think that they have a difficult position vis-a-vie the police. On the one hand, as we saw in the film, they have to be careful not to be too closely associated with the police because it doesn’t bode well for them in the community. And I completely understand that.

I remember when I working on my book There Are No Children Here, spending a couple of years in the projects. I became very good friends with the police working in that district, the plain clothes cops. And yet, I had to be really careful that I wasn’t seen with them out in the neighborhood because I didn’t want it to feel that I was somehow snitching on people in the neighborhood. That’s the kind of fine line the interrupters walk.

On the other hand, they need the support of the police. It’s important the police on some level respect what they’re doing. There was actually a time when police actually shared information with CeaseFire, not about particular incidents but just data on what neighborhoods were having problems vis-à-vis the violence.

DL: How did working on a film differ or complement what you do in print?

AK: The think I loved about it is that it’s so collaborative. My writing life is a fairly lonely, isolated existence, for the most part. One of the things about this was that there was Steve and myself and Zak Piper, our co-producer and sound person. We would go out on shoots together, and it was, despite the grim nature of the subject, I’ve got to say, I’ve never had so much fun working on a project. And with Ameena, Cobe and Eddie, we just really had a good time. It was really inspiring to be around those people.

Documentary film is very difficult to do, at least to do well. And if you’re hitting on all cylinders, and I feel that we were doing that with this film, I think there’s nothing more powerful than storytelling in film. It does have a sense of immediacy that you don’t necessarily get in print. So I really appreciated that.

Having said that, I actually miss my writing. I’m kind of chomping at the bit to get back to it. I just had a great time with the filming we’d done, and I think it was a story that really lent itself to film. It was kind of vérité.

One of the things that was nice in working with Steve was that we didn’t do any pre-interviewing, so I think the interviews were unusually fresh. The other part was that when we did the interviews, we took our time. At the end of the filming, we would sit down with the subjects for sometimes four or five hours and at a stretch. It’s a really long time. Everybody was exhausted and worn out by it, but I think it’s what allowed us to get the kind of intimacy we did in the film.

DL: (To James) You’re no stranger with covering crime in your films, especially with Stevie and No Crossover. How is this film different?

SJ: In this film, the goal is to try and understand in fundamental ways how do people come to be in this place and as importantly, if not more importantly, how do they get out of that place? You get to see that process. You get to see interrupters attempt to intervene in people’s lives. And you see some successes like Flamo.

But you also see the struggles. You see how hard it can be with someone like Capricia, who’s one step forward, two steps backward. It’s not just you intervene in somebody’s life, and suddenly everything is fine like in a Hollywood movie. It can be a long process, a hard process, and emotional process. I think that’s what this film is about.

At the end of the film, we use a Solomon Burke song where he sings in the lyrics, “Don’t give up on me,” which is what we’re saying to the audience. Don’t give up on these people. Don’t give up on these communities. They’re worth saving, and they can be saved.

I think with Stevie, the goal became to understand why and how someone comes to commit a crime that for most people is worse than murder and what are the forces at work that bring someone to that place. It’s not unrelated, my goal. It was to try to understand Stevie and feel something for Stevie while not excusing the crime that he’s committed. I think that’s always tricky, especially when the crime is molestation.

With No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, the idea was to understand how this particular crime, a racial bowling alley brawl, could divide a community. Instead of trying to spend a lot of time trying to figure out whether (future NBA player) Allen Iverson was guilty or innocent, I don’t know if there’s a way to know with absolute clarity, unless you’re Allen Iverson or were in that bowling alley. The most significant thing about that crime to me was what is meant in terms of community and how it divided the community and continues to divide the community to this day.

DL: No Crossover is set in your hometown of Alexandria, VA, and most of your other films have been inspired by where you currently live in Chicago. Do you think you could have found as compelling a subject matter if you lived anywhere else?

SJ: I think there are compelling subjects wherever you live. But I do love Chicago, and I think that Chicago probably affords more opportunities than some other places. I wouldn’t rate all places equal in terms of potentially interesting subjects.

What is amazing about Chicago is that it is this thriving, big city with a vast amount of pride, no matter where you live (in the city) and who you are. Yet it is also a city that is very divided in a lot of respects. It has obviously had its share of corruption and inequity and struggles around race and class. All of those things make it a very vibrant and interesting place to tell stories.

AK: So much of my writing has been in these communities and in this genre. My last book includes some stories with people in similar straits. Since There Are No Children Here, I’ve been wrestling with the violence, trying to figure out how we can tangle with it. We hope that the film tries to raise questions about why the violence (exists) and provide some hope that there’s something we can do about it because I do think that the people get incredibly numb and paralyzed by it. We hope that in some ways the film offers promise, offers hope.

I laugh a little bit because the publishing business is in New York. For Steve, with film, it’s in L.A. You can find all the fissures of the American landscape in the boundaries of this place. I feel it does give me an advantage. That’s why I’m out here in large part. I feel closer to the ground. I feel my life is richer for it.

Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@efilmcritic.com.