'The Interrupters': Documentary Deals With Violence On The Streets Of Chicago

Stop the shooting: That's the motto of CeaseFire, an organization dedicated to reducing the violence plaguing the streets of Chicago.

A new documentary, "The Interrupters," brings CeaseFire's fight, and the story of the people who work there, and those they work with, to the screen. The movie was directed and produced by Steve James, director of "Hoop Dreams" and also produced by Alex Kotlowitz, an author who first wrote about the organization for the New York Times Magazine in 2009.

The interrupters themselves all have histories similar to those of the people they are trying to help, a key factor in their success. Tio Hardiman, the Director of CeaseFire Illinois and a former drug addict and hustler, remembers early skepticism from whose who questioned whether such an organization could possibly make a difference.

"You got to talk as if, 'Man, I know, I been there," he says of the interrupters. "Save yourself brother -- I'm not preaching to you."

In the film, we follow three interrupters -- Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra. Ameena, the daughter of Jeff Fort -- a major gang leader in the 70s -- spent time as a teen involved in a gang, and now takes to the streets to keep kids from doing the same. When Ameena enters a mediation, standing at about a foot shorter than the teenage boys around her, she manages to be authoritative, even scolding, without ever verging on condescension or intimidation.

Dr. Gary Slutkin, CeaseFire's founder and executive director, who has worked as an epidemiologist for almost 30 years, began his work on the U.S. violence epidemic in 1995. His view, that violence can be treated with the same methods that are used to curtail AIDS or tuberculosis epidemics, resulted in CeaseFire, which has since reduced shootings and killings by 41 to 73 percent, according to an independent evaluation by the Department of Justice.

"We used to see people with TB or leprosy as bad, evil people, but violence is as invisible today as the microorganisms of the past were," he says in the film. "I see it as behavior, not as bad people -- you can judge it, but its not what we do in science."

This idea, that violence is not, as it is often perceived, a result of the bad choices or poor character of the people involved, but a learned behavior inextricably tied to the circumstances of one's birth and environment, drives the film. But we see that the ones who have the most difficulty believing in this idea are the same men and women who are trying to change their lives for the better.

The film emphasizes the notion that much of the violence on the streets results from interpersonal conflict, rather than from gang-related disputes.

Ameena describes the mindset of a young woman who wakes up and goes to school, stomach empty, wearing her niece's old clothes, having been violated by her mother's boyfriend the night before. When someone bumps into that woman in the hallway, she goes from "zero to rage" in a minute and acts out.

Caprysha, a young woman Ameena takes under her wing, struggles to adopt the new mindset, and ends up violating her parole, despite Ameena's efforts. In one scene, Ameena takes her to get her nails done and as Caprysha surveys her new green nails with disbelief, she begins to cry.

"You deserve to be happy -- you're 19," Ameena tells her.

She would be surprised to know that any of us watching the film could care about her, which is, perhaps, part of the problem. How do you convince someone that they are important enough to lead the life they want when they don't believe it themselves? How can Caprysha believe that she can become a pediatrician when no one around her has managed the same?

Eddie, a slight 34-year-old man in glasses, went to jail for 14 years for a murder he committed at 17. We follow him as he visits a school of young children, laden with paintings he created during his own time in prison, and coaxes them to tell him what's really troubling them. They decide they will paint about gang violence.

These children are not yet at the age where they might themselves end up fighting on the street, but they have all seen enough violence to be afraid. One girl, trying to describe a shooting that happened outside her home, begins to cry and cannot continue. Another boy comes to Eddie to confess his fears for an older cousin who carries a pistol.

"Painful, lonely, broken, suffering," reads one finished painting. "Revived, repaired, rejoice, hope," reads another. The first is about how the children have felt in the past. The second is what they hope for the future.

We meet Flamo, another young man Cobe mentors, just after his brother has arrested and his mother handcuffed by the police. He is angry, agitated, and eager to pursue retribution.

"Fuck the problem, fuck the solution," he yells at Cobe, before Cobe manages to talk him down and bring him into the CeaseFire offices, where the group discusses his situation as he sits unseen in the back.

Flamo's frustration seems to stem from a sense that things can't change. The murder of Derrion Albert in 2009, an incident that gained national fame when amateur footage of the young man being beaten to death with wooden planks hit YouTube, stands in the film as a key example of the distance between the local reality of violence and the fickleness of public interest.

After the incident, President Obama sent U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to Chicago to speak with Mayor Daley about youth violence. But in the community, these gestures fail to spark genuine excitement that such actions could really help to change things.

"Once the media is gone back to wherever they came from, we need to step up and do something," a CeaseFire leader says afterwards. The police, we are told, have never been a help. Nor can they be now be counted on to intervene.

But the film itself serves as a vivid plea for the rest of the country to pay a little more attention, to resist simply getting swept up in the next tragedy and forget about the last, and to remember that the problems we see broadcast on the nightly news and splashed on the front pages of papers don't disappear as quickly from the world as they do from the news cycle.

The film shows us pastel stuffed animals piled under trees, under cars, against walls, alongside the road, candles lit in rows, wide sheets of paper covered up completely with notes to the deceased -- memorials for people, often teenagers, who have already passed. The catalogue of grief suggests not only the breadth of violence in the area, but also a kind of numbness that has set in, especially for the peers of the dead.

"I am next," reads one brick on a memorial wall.

A local funeral director, who notes that 90 percent of the homicides in the area are young people, describes how mourners at the funerals put themselves in the position of the person in the casket, wondering if they will be so well cared for after their deaths.

Li'l Mikey, one of Cobe's mentees who has just been released from jail after holding up a barber shop with friends, seems less conflicted than Caprysha about his desire to change his life. Reunited with his family after two years in jail, he vows never to miss one of their graduations again.

With Cobe, he returns to the shop to apologize to the men and women he robbed. The woman at the barbershop breaks down as she takes in his apology, and it's impossible to tell how the encounter will go.

As she cries, she tells Li'l Mikey that he doesn't understand the impact his actions had, the fear that her co-worker felt when he held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her if she called the police, the helplessness she felt when she wanted to protect her children. But she hugs him, at the end.

"I am glad you are a changed man," she says.

One afternoon, Eddie walks down the street where he shot a man, looking around the quiet row of houses and says, "This block has claimed a lot of lives." Though we have just seen Li'l Mikey face the people he hurt before and receive some small measure of forgiveness, Eddie has not yet been able to reach out to the family of the man he killed.

"The Interrupters" seems less concerned with selling us an easy tale of redemption where everyone resolves their past mistakes and all the children are saved, and more concerned with making us understand that we cannot judge the decisions of another human being without understanding why they made them.

When we see Flamo after Cobe's intervention, his mood has changed. He is 32, and he has been in jail for 15 years, he says. His friends are in jail, and he has nothing to show for his life so far.

"I'm trying to be the one telling the one telling the story," Flamo says. "I don't want to be the one on the street struggling."