Filmmaker Steve James is apparently incapable of making an uninteresting documentary, even when his subject matter might presumably be thoroughly played out. James, who has already garnered enough film-festival awards (and an Oscar nomination for his breakthrough 1994 doc, Hoop Dreams) to merit multiple mantelpieces, tackles Chicago's soaring crime rate, and in particular the work of CeaseFire, a community-based interventional program founded by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin.
Youth gangs and tragically abbreviated lives are nothing new in Chicago's often violent history. In the 1980s and 1990s, the city's trouble-plagued Cabrini-Green housing development became such a treacherous eyesore and focal point for national outrage that it was demolished. (Not before having partially inspired the Candyman horror franchise, though.)
What makes The Interrupters as engaging – and harrowing – as it is comes as much from James' skillful editing of "one year in the life of a city grappling with violence" as it does the subject matter. Similar in its story arc to Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters unobtrusively follows the stories of both those who commit the violence and the CeaseFire members, whose primary goal is not to dispel gang violence but to "interrupt" it just prior to or soon after violence occurs. The group mediates emotions in the hair-trigger spaces between sadness, grief, anger, and deadly action, and its members are nearly all former gang members themselves.
Chief among them is Ameena Matthews, a former lieutenant in an otherwise all-male gang and the daughter of Jeff Fort, one of Chicago's most legendary bad guys. (How bad? Fort is currently incarcerated for conspiring with Libya to commit domestic terrorism.) Matthews, now a mother and married to an imam, has street cred that's key to respect, as does Latino CeaseFire member Eddie Bocanegra, who continues to work with the organization even after its budget is slashed and he knows he'll no longer be paid.
The Interrupters opens in the spring of 2009 when a record 124 murders had already been committed in Chicago, a tally that rivaled the United States' Afghan campaign in terms of sheer body count. Hampering the violence is a monumentally difficult task but one that CeaseFire founder Slutkin compares, in an apt analogy, to containing an infectious disease in a densely populated, poverty-ridden urban center. He should know. He was the director for tuberculosis control in San Francisco and worked for the World Health Organization, where he helped contain epidemics in Somalia, Uganda, and what seems like virtually every other East and Central African hotspot.
As everyone notes, CeaseFire has a Herculean task in Chicago's predominantly African-American Englewood neighborhood, but no one seems ready to give up or even back down, Interrupters or otherwise. It's a year in the life and death of the fight against the streetwise status quo, and James' doc brings it all horrifically home.