Review: The Interrupters, Documentary film by Steve James & Alex Kotlowitz

The film makers and the protagonists make us forget that we are watching a documentary in this crime-drama depicting how criminal gangs are disrupted in Chicago.

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Alex Radzyner
On 24 September 2011 09:44

The past summer of the English riots has raised the issues of gangs, crime and violence in our cities high on our agendas. The Interrupters is a documentary about a tough-love approach to stopping a crime occurring based on intervention. 

The “violence-interrupters” of the title are former hardened criminals gone good. Armed only with the experiences of their past and a quick witted line in repartee they put themselves into harm's way every day to save lives.

Their most valuable asset is the respect they receive on the street due both to their courage and their past criminal careers. They work for CeaseFire, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) formed in Chicago after the city had gained notoriety as a capital of youth crime.

This notoriety came to a head when Derrion Albert, a high school student, was beaten to death in a violent incident captured on camera and broadcast throughout the US. The method this NGO employs to fight violent youth crime is to intervene on the street when an argument occurs, before it explodes into violence. It does this by employing formerly violent members of the community to intervene, by constantly gathering relevant information and getting involved with the potential protagonists.

At one point, Gary Slutkin, a medical doctor in Chicago and the founder-director of CeaseFire explains that much of the violent crime committed by gang members is not gang-on-gang violence, but person-on-person violence resulting from some argument, chance encounter or a grudge that has gotten out of hand.

Of course, gang members always have knives, guns or clubs at hand allowing them to act quickly on their most violent impulses. If the right people can find the right words before anger has turned to rage and rage to murder then there is a chance that a crime will be prevented.

This means a life is saved and another life not wasted behind bars and the pernicious impact on mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters of those involved will have been avoided. Early intervention pays big dividends. 

The film follows three of these “violence-interrupters” over the course of a full year. As a result we get to know them and their clients well. This helps us appreciate the longer term impact they have on their direct clients, their families and the wider community in which they do their dangerous work.

We can also make an emotional connection with the main characters who are indeed fascinating and inspiring individuals. We get to find out about their past and their present, their successes and their failures. And we find out that  even hardened ex-criminals can be fooled for some of the time by young clients faking sincerity. 

The film makers and the protagonists make us forget that we are watching a documentary. The characters and their stories draw us in, hold our attention and connect with our emotions as any good fictional crime/drama would. 

The Interrupters fully deserves the many prizes it has won at various festivals. If you cannot catch it in the cinema get the DVD as soon as it is available.

http://interrupters.kartemquin.com/

Alex Radzyner writes the London Theater Goer blog.

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