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Mediations with the Camera: Steve James on Making 'The Interrupters'

By Joseph Jon Lanthier

Editor's Note: The Interrupters, from Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz, airs February 14 on PBS' Frontline. What follows is an interview with Steve James that was published last August in conjunction with the film theatrical premiere through The Cinema Guild.

A portrait of calculated resilience and rebirth amid struggles of urban turbulence, Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz's The Interrupters indelibly humanizes the gang war-zone of Chicago's south and west sides. The documentary, based on a New York Times Magazine article by Kotlowitz, follows a collection of anti-violence agents from the organization CeaseFire. We watch as they patrol the streets to assuage volatile situations and forge relationships with grudge-holding gang members in an effort to break the cycle of revenge and death. Their mission is, indeed, to "interrupt" the trend of violence in inner-city Chicago at both micro and macro levels.

Many of the Interrupters are ex-convicts and gang members themselves--the remarkable Ameena Matthews is the scion of local legend Jeff Fort, and both Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra have done long stints in prison for serious crimes. Forming an expository foundation with this triad of subjects in particular, James and Kotlowitz explore both the formula of urban fights and how it can be peacefully balanced, as well the narrative of trauma composed by continual exposure to violence.

We spoke to director/producer/cinematographer/editor Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie) about his experiences shooting and editing the film, and about the filmmakers' own roles as "interrupters" in the real-life situations they were attempting to capture and organize into a coherent story.


Ameena Matthews (left), featured in Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz's The Interrupters. Courtesy of Kartemquin Films



Documentary: Early on the film, CeaseFire director Tio Hardiman says that in order to be truly effective, each "interrupter" has to become a part of the world whose violence he or she is attempting to ameliorate. He describes it as "immersing yourself in the bullshit." To what extent did you and Alex have to immerse yourself in the bullshit?

Steve James: I've made a number of different kinds of films over the years, but the ones I'm most proud of are the ones that really involve immersion into people's lives over a period of time. In the case of The Interrupters, the immersion was really into communities, and in particular Englewood [a rough neighborhood on Chicago's South Side], which is where Ameena and Cobe do most of their work.

Both Alex and I live in Oak Park, the first due west suburb outside of the city. Being local made this film possible. We were on call just like the Interrupters. If there was a situation that the Interrupters thought would be workable for us, they'd call us. Sometimes those calls would come pretty late at night, so we had to be ready. That's another reason that for me to shoot this film--not just direct--made sense. It kept us small. It was really just me, Alex and Zak Piper, who did sound and acted as co-producer. I had the camera gear at my home and when I'd get a call I'd just leap into action.

D: You say that you had to immerse yourself into people's lives, and I imagine that getting them "comfortable" was crucial to that process, especially since you were dealing with ex-convicts who have a lot to hide. And yet the film overflows with loaded candor.

SJ: Well, it takes a while. It took us a while to get Ameena to that place of openness especially. We had to chase her a little bit. All of our meetings with her were by appointment at first. She called Alex and I her "stalkers." [laughs] But she was a crucial piece of the CeaseFire story--one of the few women Interrupters, the daughter of Jeff Fort, and a charismatic presence. And once she let us accompany her on mediations, she saw that we were respectful and knew when to step back and that it wasn't going to compromise the work she did. It was a real victory of trust to get her to open up to us.

With Cobe it was a completely different process. He was very outgoing, but there are still things that Cobe has not told us about his criminal past--things that he will never tell us. We had a hard time getting him to say the word "bullets" in reference to a buddy of his. "I don't want to hang him out there," he explained to us. But we understand that about all three of our main subjects. There was a degree that you needed to know about their past to make the film work and a degree that you as a viewer don't have a right to know.


Cobe Williams (left), featured in Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz' The Interrupters. Courtesy of Kartemquin Films


D: It's interesting how language can be a weapon in this landscape. While I was typing up the questions for this interview, I found myself using the verb "shoot" a lot in reference to the camera, and it made me really uncomfortable. There's definitely a sense in which the camera becomes a weapon here, too--one that's "interrupting" the action of real life.

SJ: You know, the camera adds a presence. In most situations, what we're trying to do is demystify our presence until it's not that big of a deal. We don't shoot from across the street. You can tell from the movie--I'm in pretty close. I think that's always better than seeming like you're at remove and eavesdropping. There are certain filmmakers--like Frederick Wiseman, who gets great results--who simply document and do their best to be as low-key and nonexistent, in a sense, as possible. I don't take that approach. There are situations where it's actually your duty as a director to intervene and make something more authentic happen. I don't think it compromises any "essential truth"; it might even bring it out.

When we were first out with Cobe, he tended to start interviewing people he would meet out in the streets on our behalf. He was trying to give us what he thought we wanted, but he was engaging in conversations that were clearly not authentic. So we had to pull him aside and say "Cobe...this isn't the way you talk to people. So stop doing that. Just be you. And if we have a question, we'll ask."

D: It's fascinating how you fashioned that "essential truth" in the editing room, too. I was struck by how the film seemed to shuttle so effortlessly between a narrative voice and a more essayistic one. There are scenes that incisively represent the Interrupters' methods and break down the "formula" of gang violence for us interspersed among more personal content, so the emotional moments have an almost didactic context. Was that balance consciously being made in the editing room, or was it inherent in the material?

SJ: I think that this subject matter leant itself to that balance. The mediations were instructive in various ways, and not just instructive of the Interrupters' approach. There were times when we wanted to audience to plunge in and be right there on the edge of their seats, and at other times we wanted them to be at some remove and be more analytical about what was happening. Because the goal ultimately was not to just immerse the audience in these neighborhoods and these lives, but to have them think deeply about the violence and what brings people to that place, and what can be done about it. But we didn't want to do it with experts. We didn't want to do it with charts and graphs and animation.

D: I think that balance also creates a tense dichotomy of permanence and change--the sense that we're watching characters go about their daily, albeit remarkable, lives, but also watching them transform. And we can extrapolate this to the film's environment--the Interrupters are doing enormous amounts of good, but Chicago remains a violent place, as the funereal motif to which you continually return proves.

SJ: My co-editor, Aaron Wickenden, and I--as well as Alex and Zak, watching cuts and weighing in--really wanted the film to distill the larger experience that we had making it. We wanted people to go on the same journey that we went on. It was conscious that we included a mediation early in the film that was really chaotic. But as the film evolved we wanted to connect you with these people in a deeper way so you could see that ultimately, they don't want to be violent. I mean, they really don't want to be violent. I think that's where the hopefulness comes from.

And along with the hopefulness, we wanted at the end for you to be thinking about where does this all lead. Capricia, the troubled girl who Ameena mentors, does wind up getting her high school degree, but she violates her parole and goes back to prison. She got out after we completed filming. Vanessa, the little girl who held her brother as he died, gets into a fight for the first time in her life and gets suspended in the movie. We never wanted you to forget that individually and socially there's much work to be done.


Steve James. Courtesy of Kartemquin Films



The Interrupters opens August 12 in Chicago and London, then August 26 in Los Angeles and other cities. Cinema Guild is handling US distribution, while Dogwoof is handling the UK market.

Joseph Lon Lanthier is a cultural critic currently based in Chicago.