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By Tom Holmes
On Aug. 14, the sold-out house at the Gene Siskel Center in the Loop rose to its feet to give a standing ovation to Oak Parkers Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz at the end of their film, The Interrupters.
Audiences haven't been the only source of rave reviews. The Sun Times called it a "stunning and stirring film." IFC News online said it contains "just about everything you could want from a movie: suspense, humor, sadness, and real human drama. It's an impressive achievement." Critics at the Sundance, Adelaide, True/False and Miami film festivals (it won the best documentary award at the latter) have acclaimed the pair's work. PBS plans to air the film in the fall of 2012.
The Interrupters follows three mediators — Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra, who work for an organization called CeaseFire in Chicago — as they intervene in tense situations on the city's West and South sides, situations that have the potential of escalating into violence. Kotlowitz, James and their partner Zak Piper were on call 24/7 for the year it took to shoot the film. Matthews, Williams or Bocanegra would call to say something was going down in the neighborhood, and the threesome would jump in their cars and quickly drive to the conflict.
What has amazed movie-goers, critics and even the filmmakers themselves is the level of intimate access they were allowed in shooting the documentary. The crew, for instance, was permitted to film the funeral of 16-year-old honor student Derrion Albert whose beating death by was caught on video and shown around the country. James, who did most of the filming, was able to get close-ups of Derrion's mother, her face racked with grief. He also captured Matthews as she tried to use the tragedy as an occasion to plead for non-violent ways of resolving conflict.
On another occasion, the filmmakers were able to document Williams' attempt to interrupt a violent act by a man known to viewers only as Flamo. As obscenities spew from Flamo's mouth along with declarations of what he is going to do to the mother f_ _ _ _ _ who disrespected him, Williams works for a very long time to calm him down.
James, Kotlowitz and Piper also follow Bocanegra to a cemetery where a grieving family gathers nearly every day to mourn the killing of their teenager.
Outsiders looking in
Kotlowitz, who co-produced the documentary, talked about how he, his Oak Park neighbor and Piper were able to achieve this "imbedded with the troops," firsthand documentation of life on Chicago's mean streets. It has everything to do with building trusting relationships and being patient.
"Steve and I were clearly outsiders," said Kotlowitz, author of two acclaimed works of non-fiction, There Are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River. "Here we were, these two white men." The interrupters became their ticket into numerous situations. Williams, for example, would respond to questioning looks from neighborhood people by simply noting, "This is my film crew." Enough said.
"What was so wonderful and marvelous about this project was that we outsiders had these three insiders who were not only our guides," said Kotlowitz. "They knew their communities inside out."
Matthews, Williams and Bocanegra had all done time, Bocanegra for murder. Matthews' father is the notorious gang leader Jeff Fort, who is still in prison. This was their turf and they knew how to navigate it. What made them effective was that they had street credibility, but they also had gotten some distance from the culture in which they had been raised. They were from the culture but no longer trapped in it.
James — the director, cameraman and a co-producer of The Interrupters — emphasized that the only reason the threesome was permitted to film very intimate scenes was that they had built up enough trust, primarily with Matthews, Williams and Bocanegra and then with residents of the neighborhoods. The people they captured on film had to make "a leap of faith" in allowing themselves to be filmed when they were so emotionally vulnerable.
What is perhaps counterintuitive at first is that these people who were accustomed to living and surviving in a very violent environment had to feel safe before they would let themselves be exposed on film. said James, whose previous film work includes the acclaimed documentary, Hoop Dreams.
The key to any trusting relationship is honesty and genuine interest shared between people who like each other. The stakes rise when you are making a film because you're also asking people to reveal themselves — not just to you, but ultimately to strangers. To do that, people have to feel safe and assured that you will present them in at least a non-judgmental light. And they have to believe in the importance of the film.
Another key, James said, is having a production team that genuinely understands and connects with people. "Alex obviously has long and deep connections and understanding from his writing (There Are No Children Here), and Zak Piper, a co-producer and the sound recordist, bonded beautifully with everyone. He came to be known as Uncle Zak because of his generosity."
Being on the street on a regular basis, residents got to know the team. "You have to spend time there," James said, "so that what you capture isn't a snapshot but hopefully a fully realized and complex understanding."
One thing that helped Kotlowitz and James bridge the culture gap was that they were open to having their preconceived notions challenged and changed.
"You go in with a sense of what you think the story might be," Kotlowitz explained. "What you have to be very ready and willing to do is to change course when the story seems to be something else."
"You have to work to set aside your preconceived notions," James added. "I'm comfortable going into a film not knowing where it will lead or what the story will ultimately be. I really see the whole process as one of discovery and am comfortable with a fairly long period of not knowing what the story will be."
One thing that changed was their expectation of how they would feel during the process of filming.
"I think both Steve and I were braced for a pretty grim year," Kotlowitz recalled. "The terrain is pretty bleak and the subject matter is treacherous."
There were, in fact, difficult and unsettling moments — funerals of innocent teenagers, grief of parents, rage in children, expectations of young men on the street that they would die before they reach 30. What James and Kotlowitz did not anticipate was how enjoyable it would be.
"We had a great time with Ameena, Eddie and Cobe," said Kotlowitz. "They were so much fun to be around. They were so inspiring. You can't make that stuff up. If you're open to being really knocked off balance ... what could be more exciting and thrilling? That's what I love about this work."
Another thing that helped three white, suburban guys make a great film about people of color living east of Austin Boulevard is that they are natural storytellers. James and Kotlowitz agreed from the beginning they were not going to make a polemic.
"I think there is far too much shouting going on in this world today," Kotlowitz said. "What stories allow you to do is to take your own journey and to make up your own mind. You're not pushed or pulled or told how to think. The best storytelling brings you places you wouldn't ordinarily go to and introduces you to people you wouldn't ordinarily meet.
"Stories can challenge your assumptions," he continued. "You go into a place like Englewood and you think you know the narrative. You spend time with a person like Flamo, and the shape of his narrative is very different from what you anticipated."
James added that his goal is to put those who watch The Interrupters in the neighborhoods and present it all as honestly and with as little judgment as possible.
"I want viewers to understand and think hard about all of this. I want the film to ask questions yet give audiences enough to intelligently wrestle with the answers. The film has a point of view, but it's not one that makes for easy answers and judgments."
It can also be a positive experience for those living in the neighborhood. "Storytelling," Kotlowitz explained, "can affirm your experiences. This film will be shown in the Englewood neighborhood, and people will be able to see some of themselves in it."
And there is a place for outside observers in places like Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Little Village.
"Outsiders," Kotlowitz says, "often see things that insiders don't, because they've grown so accustomed to it. Outsiders ask questions that people have stopped asking or don't see to ask."
The two white, Oak Park co-producers share another value that civility activist Frances Kissling refers to as "enthusiasm for difference." James grew up in Hampton, Va., which was half-white and half-black, where the schools were integrated and everyone shopped in the same stores. He played high school basketball with black teammates but noticed that the two races didn't go to church together or socialize with each other.
"It made me curious about their lives away from the team," he recalled. "This curiosity coupled with my fascination about race was at the heart of what made me want to make Hoop Dreams."
Kotlowitz caught the multicultural bug during his college years. Taking a break from his studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, he worked for a year at a settlement house on the south side of Atlanta for a year in the second poorest census tract in the U.S. "It was a transformative experience," he recalled. "It was my first experience with profound poverty."
After graduating from Wesleyan, he wrote for an alternative newspaper in Michigan, worked with Michael Moore, did reporting for NPR, and worked for the Wall Street Journal for eight years. It was during a leave of absence from reporting that he wrote the bestselling There Are No Children Here, a book imbedded him on the West Side of Chicago for a year.
The two Oak Parkers have also found that in the process of engaging with those who are different, they discovered a lot about themselves.
"It's one of the many perks, if you will, of the work," James said. "You get to consider your life and ideas and values in the context of others, who are often very different from yourself ... or, perhaps more accurately, whose lives are very different from your own.
"One of the continuing revelations across all the films I've done," he explained, "has been that we all want so many of the same things: to be loved and respected, to have credible hope for our future and that of our families, and to believe our life matters."
In making The Interrupters James learned a couple of other lessons: "That people and communities are incredibly resilient and that 'bad people' can change." He thought for a moment then clarified: "Maybe what I mean more precisely is that with help, people can find a way to who they really are at their core. And hardly anyone — maybe no one — is bad at their core."
Kotlowitz said he and his family moved to Oak Park in 1993 because one of the boys whose story he told in There Are No Children Here was living with them, and they therefore wanted to live in an integrated community.
James said, "Oak Park has been a fascinating place to live these last 27 years. I continue to give it great credit for its efforts around race. But it's also clear that even here, race and class are hard subjects for people to grapple with openly and honestly. And that's because we as a nation still struggle so profoundly with these issues."
"The overall feeling of making the film," he said, "was that we were documenting something very vital, important and ultimately quite inspiring. What the film may ultimately be is a plea of sorts to save people and communities that too many have given up on. I think that's why Zak's brilliant stroke of genius was suggesting we use Solomon Burke's 'Don't Give Up on Me' as the song that ends the film."
It was a piece Kotlowitz wrote on CeaseFire for the New York Times Magazine in 2008 that caught his neighbor's attention, and James suggested to his friend that they work together on a film about violence in Chicago and CeaseFire's attempt to interrupt it.
CeaseFire is the brainchild of Dr. Gary Slutkin, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois - Chicago. His strategy for reducing violence in the city is based on the premise that it is a public health issue, and therefore the way to treat it is by interrupting transmission and changing behavior.
Critics contend that Slutkin ignores the causes of violence like poverty, racism, neighborhood blight, high unemployment and poor schools. Slutkin responds that the cause of violence is violence. If a neighborhood wants business to locate there and the schools to improve, violence must be reduced, not the other way around.
CeaseFire was started in West Garfield Park in 2000 as a program of the UIC-based Chicago Project for Violence Prevention. A study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice and published in 2008 found a 16-35 percent drop in shootings and killings directly attributable to CeaseFire's efforts.
In a Q&A session following the screening of The Interrupters on Aug. 14, Slutkin said that CeaseFire now has 100 interrupters working in 16 Chicago neighborhoods and has expanded its work to 15 cities in the U.S. and five other countries.