One of the great blunders in Academy Awards history was when Steve James' 'Hoop Dreams,' considered one of the best non-fiction films of all time, was not even nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar. I am hopeful that the Academy won't make the same mistake with his latest, and best since. 'The Interrupters' definitely deserves such recognition and would not in the least be viewed as one of those redemptive honors. Like his 17-year-old classic, this is an incredible and moving film.
Inspired by a 2008 New York Times piece by Alex Kotlowitz (a producer and key collaborator on this film), the documentary brings James back to 'Hoop Dreams' territory, setting-wise, by following the inspiring Chicago-based organization CeaseFire, tracking the work and lives of a few members of its "violence interrupters" team. These individuals, many of whom come from a violent past themselves, now mediate gang disputes and try to resolve other potential causes for alarm that may lead to more murders, adding to an already epidemic issue in the city. Through a year in the lives, we witness the subjects' personal struggles with inner-city violence as well.
An obvious problem for the film in terms of accessibility and appeal is its running time of more than two-and-a-half hours, just shorter than 'Hoop Dreams.' Unlike that film, 'Interrupters' lacks the sporting interest and its natural sense of a narrative. There is, truthfully, little in the way of a "What will happen?" drive, like the "Will they or won't they succeed?" question hanging over the story of teenage basketball hopefuls. Sadly, violence in Chicago doesn't end when the film does.
But 'The Interrupters' does present another very intimate and captivating look into inner-city communities, features a good number of engaging characters and goes through a lot of ups and downs as tragedies continue to balance against the multiple instances of success on the part of the CeaseFire counselors and problem solvers. I admit it was a roller coaster for my emotions, as I honestly shed a few tears at moments of both sadness and hopefulness.
Any concern about the film's length is met with the realization that it could not be any shorter. Every second is necessary. The thing about issues like this is that a single individual subject cannot be filmed exclusively and meant to be representative of the whole problem and community. And coverage of multiple characters and aspects related to the issue must not be only glimpsed at. Either sort of obscuration would be as insufficient as the statistical data and eclipsed attention the media attends to the matter. And the audience would leave the story without proper concern, let alone combined outrage and optimism.
As usual, I'm finding links to other films I've seen at the fest and couldn't help but think of the Slamdance doc 'Superheroes,' which now seems, or at least its subjects do, rather naïve with regards to the RLSH approach to crime fighting. I'd now like to see that film's characters all abandon their costumes and take after the model of the violence interrupters.
I also thought comparatively about a film called 'Knuckle,' about Irish family feuds traditionally settled through underground boxing. That film is similarly filled with stubborn, unforgiving people getting bloody for vindictive reasons, not unlike some of the Chicagoans in James' doc. But while the violence in 'Knuckle' becomes explicit spectacle, that of 'The Interrupters' is obviously not. James captures, and almost opens with, an altercation involving a brick and a butcher knife and later a deadly incident that ended up on YouTube is somewhat shown, but for better purpose.
As U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan states in a press conference about the latter murder (of teen Derrion Albert), "seeing something on video seems to wake up this country." Will that be true of viewers seeing 'The Interrupters'? Academy recognition will likely bring a larger audience to a film like this, and then maybe we'll see.