Director: Steve James
Cast: Eddie Bocanegra, Tio Hardiman, Ameena Matthews, Gary Slutkin, Ricardo “Cobe” Williams
Apathy & Empathy
The Interrupters is the latest documentary feature from Steve James, the celebrated director of Hoop Dreams (1994), which, I am embarrassed and ashamed to admit, I have never seen. The Interrupters highlights the work done by CeaseFire in Chicago and its dedicated violence interrupters as they attempt to mediate peace between individuals and within individuals on the streets and in the neighbourhoods of some of America’s most violence-blighted places. From a rhetorical perspective, the film posits that violence is a disease and, as such, that it is infectious, viral, and communicated in a hereditary manner. Being surrounded by violence creates acceptance of violent behaviour, witnessing violence instigates new violence. being a victim of violence spawns retaliatory responses, and having a violent parent creates offspring prone to violence. The interrupters of CeaseFire step in as social/community antibiotics or antibodies and, by their own admission, are not trying to solve the root causes of violence in these Chicago neighbourhoods (poverty, education, political disenfranchisement), but the major symptom these factors lead to: violence on the street as it is happening.
The Interrupters is a movie full of emotions; anger, guilt, and regret are the most prevalent for the subjects of the film. For me, there is sadness here, too, and it is derived from my own reflection on this movie rather than the states of the lives depicted within it. Statistics presented in the film, such as more Americans being killed in these neighbourhoods than in the Iraq War, are sad, but sadder still is that it doesn’t shock me; it doesn’t even surprise me. My own apathy to the plight of urban America is also sad. I could excuse myself by stating that Englewood is so far away from me here in Korea and my white middle-class liberal upbringing and lifestyle. It is far away and far outside my experience and it doesn’t touch my daily life. Could it be that I just don’t care?
Is this movie even asking me to care? I don’t think that it is. It doesn’t feel like a call for action from the intended audience as it is not an overtly political film. But, with its direct cinema style, it strives to present a truth by being in the situation. The film is successful in creating empathy for how these kids, mostly, see themselves and their futures whether it be at a funeral or from a little girl crying in a classroom or a troubled teen receiving a manicure at an up-scale suburban shopping mall. Indeed these most moving and powerful episodes in the film work precisely because the camera is there just as the Interrupters need to be there when violence erupts. The personalities in the film (notably Ameena, Cobe, and Eddie) are strong and wilful. They seem to be the best Interrupters not just because they can relate to the gang and violence stricken youth having come from these neighbourhoods and culture and having spent time in prison, but because they made the hard choice to activate their knowledge and experience to help. They didn’t “get out” of this culture, instead they are seeking to have the culture view itself in another way. The individuals Ameena, Cobe, and Eddie most closely interact with in the movie are being asked to make that choice, too. Mr. James and his documentary don’t offer up any greater answer than this: be there and choose. Or, as Spike Lee so magnificently demanded, do the right thing. The film shows, in the complement of content and style, that individual actions make a difference to individual lives and if these actions are positive then instead of a cancer you have a regeneration of self, community, and society.