Access is everything. At least it is for many documentaries, where the level of access they get to their subjects plays a large role in the success or failure of the film. Director Steve James gets unbelievable access to those he covers on the streets of Chicago in his film The Interrupters.
CaseFire is a Chicago based group determined to stop the violence that ruins their neighborhoods. Many of the staff are former gang members who have served time in prison and some earned notoriety for their antics on the streets. The goal of these interrupters is to intercede before violence erupts. They do not aim to solve all the world’s problems. Their goal is simple yet tragically complex. Stop the violence. The film closely follows a few members of CeaseFire as they go about their work and along the way a picture of who they are and who they help is developed in a sometimes painful manner. There is little rest for those who find themselves locked in a seemingly endless cycle of violence.
There is no shortage of deeply emotional material and yet the rough edges are never avoided. The easy way out for Steve James would have been to make the CeaseFire crew saviors on the mean streets, with those they “save” serving as mere victims. Instead he allows both those who interrupt the violence and those who are creating it tell their story. They tell it in interviews as they reflect on their past and in the midst of the action. The stories told and shown are frustrating, heartbreaking, filled with anger and spite as well as love and care. No one comes out unscathed.
A film dealing with inner city violence can’t help but avoid the political implications. And while the politics are touched upon, James wisely keeps his focus on the deeply personal examination of those his camera hones in on. There are no easy answers given. Any politician given screen time comes off as rather out of touch in comparison to the reality on display.
Sad stories permeate with only glimpses of hope. Those who do their jobs as part of CeaseFire appear driven by a need for redemption. Their lives have always been mixed up in the sad stories. Instead of intervening as they do now, in the past they were causing the sadness. Now their perception of reality is different. The reaction is not to lash out in anger but rather to help as many people stuck in their old way of life as they can. The dangerous situations this desire causes are numerous. We learn that only one interrupter has ever been shot doing the work. We briefly meet that gentleman in his hospital bed when Tio Hardiman, the director of CeaseFire, visits. Up until this moment Tio comes off as a confident leader hell bent on making his organization’s goal a reality. Seeing one of his people in significant pain after being shot in the back and foot, causes this strong man to break out of his motivational speaker mode and into that of a teary eyed father who realizes the young man on the bed is around the same age of his sons.
While reality TV has trained most of us to build a cynical force field to what we see on the television, documentaries like The Interrupters pierce our hearts, not with emotional trickery but by displaying slices of life otherwise unnoticed by most.