Stars of The Interrupters: (from left) Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra
Early in The Interrupters, a new documentary by the director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and the author Alex Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here), a fight erupts in front of the Englewood office of CeaseFire, the Chicago-based violence prevention organization. “Violence interrupter” Ameena Matthews, a diminutive African American Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, springs into action.
Daughter of the feared former gang leader Jeff Fort, and herself an ex-enforcer in a drug ring, Matthews defuses a potentially lethal situation. But what isn’t shown in the movie is that during the incident, a neighborhood youth slipped into the office and stole the filmmaker’s camera bag. Working her contacts, Matthews eventually finds the teenager responsible. A few days later, the teen starts volunteering in the office. “We let him know, ‘We’re not judging you,’” Matthews explains.
She is one of three former felons whose personal stories of redemption are chronicled in The Interrupters, the latest from Chicago’s Kartemquin Films. The documentary debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January and will air on WTTW as part of a series celebrating Kartemquin’s 45th anniversary. The film was inspired by a 2008 New York Times Magazine piece by Kotlowitz about CeaseFire’s interrupter program, which theorizes that inner-city violence mimics infectious diseases like AIDS; therefore, the solution is to go after the most infected—those with a strong grievance or motive—and intervene before more violence is transmitted.
“We’re like firefighters. If there’s something going on, we shut it down,” says Cobe Williams, an affable 38-year-old interrupter who first heard about CeaseFire while sitting in jail for drug possession. Most of the 50 trained interrupters are employed through UIC’s School of Public Health, which houses CeaseFire. (Public and private sources supply funding.) According to the organization, interrupters helped prevent 498 conflicts in 2010.
For more than a year, Steve James filmed the work of Matthews, Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra, 35, a former Little Village gang member who served 14 years for murder. Several story lines unfold as the interrupters invest themselves in the lives of the people they’re trying to pull from the precipice. Early in the film, Chicago receives unwelcome national attention when a 16-year-old Fenger High School student is killed during a melee that is captured on amateur video. Instead of letting the incident hijack the story, James captures its effect on the interrupters as they try to stay positive in the face of a cycle of violence. “Getting to see the humanity behind these people—the interrupters and the people they’re dealing with—we see how much they want to change and how much they can change,” says James.
When Matthews, Williams, and Bocanegra attended the screening at Sundance, they were struck by the contrast between their backgrounds and those of the Hollywood types who crammed the theatre. After five days of mingling with celebrities in the crowded Park City streets, the three basked in the glow of a standing ovation when the credits rolled.
For Bocanegra, the reaction was more than a validation of their work. “The irony is, here we are trying to change the mindsets of the people we’re working with, stopping violence,” he says. “But in the same way, with this film, we’re changing preconceived notions of how [people] view us.”
Photography: Chris Strong