In the 1986 action thriller “Cobra,” Sylvester Stallone had this great line about the evil of crime. “You’re the disease,” he tells a crook, “and I’m the cure.” In the context of “Cobra,” the line is ridiculous: Stallone’s idea of a cure for crime is just murdering a lot of people (I guess that’s one way to fight urban overcrowding). But maybe beneath the layers of machismo and right-wing paranoia there’s a kernel of truth there. Maybe crime really is a disease. And maybe the right way to fight it is to treat it like it’s a disease, by trying to stop the infection at the point of transmission.
That’s the radical idea behind the Chicago organization CeaseFire and their group of so-called “violence interrupters.” They work to prevent violence in their community before it happens by mediating disputes and counseling the victims of attacks before they can retaliate. The new documentary “The Interrupters” by Steve James, the director of “Hoop Dreams,” and Alex Kotlowitz, the writer of “There Are No Children Here,” is an incredible tribute to the brave men and women of CeaseFire. James and Kotlowitz spent a year shooting the organization’s work, focusing particularly on three remarkably talented interrupters — all reformed criminals themselves — and their clients. The result has just about everything you could want from a movie: suspense, humor, sadness, and real human drama. It’s an impressive achievement.
I spoke with director/producer/cinematographer James and producer Kotlowitz last week about selecting their subjects, shooting dynamic sequences with just one camera, and how these Chicago neighborhoods have changed since James made “Hoop Dreams” almost twenty-five years ago.
Alex, the project starts with you and an article about the violence interrupters you wrote in The New York Times. How’d you first hear about the organization?
Alex Kotlowitz: I spent a couple years in the projects with two boys for my first book, “There Are No Children Here.” And so much of that book is about the violence in these kids’ lives. In fact, during the course of that book, they lost three friends, all 18 years of age and younger, in violent ways. Since the book came out, three of the kids that I knew — not the main subjects — have been murdered. Steve had a similar experience with “Hoop Dreams.” For me, it’s been troubling and perplexing, and I’ve been trying to figure out a way to grapple with it.
When I first heard about CeaseFire, you couldn’t help but notice them; they had these big billboards up around the city at the time and their bumper stickers were ubiquitous. I just thought they were another gang interventionist group but someone urged me to come spend some time with them. What intrigued me about what they do is that they have this prism to look on the violence, to look at it as a public health matter or an infectious disease. And I think one of the things that does that’s important is it takes the moral judgment out of the equation. They’re not about good and bad people.
I began to spend time at their weekly Wednesday meetings with the interrupters and after the first meeting there I was hooked. I just thought, “What a great window onto this city, these neighborhoods, this issue.” And of course you look at all the faces on the people around the table and you know the slew of stories that are there. So I told Steve — Steve and I are longtime friends — and when I was working on the piece I told him about it. It was one of the rare experiences I’ve had as a writer where I thought, “Boy, this could actually make a better film,” if we could get the kind of access we needed.
Steve James: And I read his article and called him up that day and said, “Wow, this is a great article. I think there’s a real documentary here.” He said, “Well, what about the access?” And I said, “Well, it may be tough but I think it’s worth looking into.” Even from reading his article I felt like there were things in his article that we could have filmed. And I said to him, “Alex, we only need like three or four mediations. If we get three or four good mediations, that’s enough for a movie. We’re not going to do an endless string of mediations. We’re going to try to do something that digs deeper like your article, that tries to understand what’s going on in the streets and really humanizes people in these situations, not just create another reality TV premise.
How did you decide which interrupters to focus on?
SJ: Well Ameena was an obvious choice because Ameena is Ameena. [laughs] She was one of the few women interrupters and when Alex told me that she was the daughter of [infamous Chicago gang leader] Jeff Fort, I was like “Oh my God — how can we not?” We targeted her immediately. There were others we targeted, some that were featured in Alex’s article, that just didn’t like the idea of the camera, which was understandable.
What happened is we started filming the weekly interrupters meetings and then Tio Hardiman, who created the interruptors program, would routinely say to these guys in very strong terms, “Get these guys some mediations. Get them out there with you.” And the guy who really took up the challenge was Cobe. He started calling us. We hadn’t really even noticed him at the table until he started calling us. And this guy had a gift for getting us into situations. He had this great way of doing it, which was to play it off like it was no big deal. “This is just my film crew,” he’d say. He’d call us “his film crew.”
[laughs] You guys worked for him.
SJ: Yeah, “This is my film crew. They’re just doing this film on my work, no big deal.” Or, “This is the guy who did ‘Hoop Dreams.’ You seen ‘Hoop Dreams?'” And that actually helped.
AK: It was important to us to have a Latino. There was someone in my story who we very much wanted, but he, as Steve said, was very uncomfortable with cameras. And he suggested we get together with Eddie.
What intrigued us about Eddie was his story was so different from Ameena and Cobe’s. In some ways his story is a very internal one. Here’s a guy who committed the ultimate act, killed somebody when he was 18, been out of prison for just a couple of years and is still grappling with what he did and trying to find a way to forgive himself for that moment in his life. He’s also an incredibly thoughtful guy who really thinks through everything very carefully and challenges himself. He wonders how effective he is; if he stops someone one day, what’s going to keep them from shooting someone the next day? As much as he admires and believes in the philosophy of CeaseFire, he also has a lot of questions, so he became a really important voice in the film.
SJ: One of the things that was really interesting about Eddie was we were catching him at that point in his life where he was trying to come to terms with what he had done. Ameena and Cobe had been through that process themselves, and you hear about how they got to that place. But we were actually witnessing it with Eddie.
AK: You can see in the interview, there’s one point where he’s almost in tears talking about how he has to keep busy all the time because he’s worried that if he slows down it’s going to overwhelm him and he’s just going to have to deal with it all.
The title card says the film is a year in the life of these interrupters. Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to shoot for a year? How do you know how much footage is enough footage?
SJ: That was the challenge with this project from the get-go. It was something that we talked about a fair amount, because we’re both narrative storytellers: Alex with his books, me with my films. We realized early on that there wasn’t going to be a single narrative thread that drives you through, like a family or one person. Once we got out there and started to see what we were getting we both were clear that maybe the structure of this film is a year on the streets of Chicago and these interrupters are our guides. We don’t just want to see a series of mediations because we knew the kind of interrupters they were; they don’t just spend a day with someone and move on. Some people you do, but the ones were we most interested in were the ones we could dig into and really understand who these people are.
AK: It also became clear that we were getting such rich material that a year would be enough and also that we were onto some stories that we could follow over the course of those twelve months. They weren’t going to be resolved at the end of those twelve months, but even if we had filmed for two years there probably wouldn’t have been a neat and tidy resolution.
SJ: When we got into editing, I also liked the idea of the seasons playing a role. We tend to associate violence with summer in the United States. “Oh, when the summer hits, it heats up and that’s when it’s really bad.” Well it’s true, it is worse in the summer. But this is not just a summer problem. And there was something hopefully a little poetic about the idea of starting with summer and ending with spring, where the last part of the movie’s dominated by people who are sort of in a process of rebirth.
Do you ever shoot with more than one camera?
SJ: I’ve always believed in one camera. There’s been situations where I’ve used more than one camera but I could probably count on one hand in all the years I’ve made films that we’ve shot with more than one camera.
So how do you know when to move the camera? The film doesn’t feel stiff and static. There’s lots of angles and cuts; you could tell me there were scenes where you had more than one camera and I would believe it. When do you zoom or pan? Is that intuitive or is there a conscious process behind that?
SJ: Hopefully there’s both. I normally work with three people: it’s usually me, a cinematographer, and a sound person. Alex was the one who suggested that I shoot this film so that we could keep the camera crew small. I don’t shoot a lot but it made sense, not only because it kept us small but also because of the nature of this project. We had to leave at the drop of a hat, sometimes in the middle of the night. We never knew when we were shooting, so being able to be a rapid deployment force was key.
But to answer your question about the actual shooting part, I think what’s important in any given scene is to be thinking in terms of editing. Even the most riveting thing that you just want to bear witness to; no matter how great it is, it’s going to need to be edited. I’ve always been as fascinated and sometimes more fascinated with the person that’s not talking as the person who is talking. It’s almost like what should guide your shooting is what guides your interest in the moment. If [a scene] goes on long enough you get enough coverage that you can cut it together in a way that feels like more cameras than it is.
AK: And I was like a third set of eyes. While Steve was focused in, I could see what was going on around, and I’d whisper in his ear or tap him.
You guys captured some intense stuff, maybe even some illegal stuff. Was there ever a moment that you had to turn the cameras off?
SJ: There were things we shot that couldn’t end up being in the film because it created a real problem for Eddie. When he committed his murder it was in retaliation for a gang member that was paralyzed. Eddie went back and sat down with that guy and we filmed him, still in a wheelchair. We couldn’t shoot his face or his tattoos. He was very, very agitated about this.
It was a great scene. Eddie was trying to get him to leave the gangs. And he basically said he’d made his choice. He wheeled off with one of the gang members trailing him. And the next day, one of the higher-ups in the gang contacted Eddie and said “No more of that and I don’t want to see that scene in a movie.”
I was shocked reading more about the film that your three main subjects have only been working as interrupters for a few years; they are so good and so natural at it. What sort of training do they get for the job?
AK: Three things. One is they’ve got to have a resume that qualifies them for the job. Obviously that means being of the streets.
It’s an unusual job resume.
AK: It is.
SJ: It’s the only job that resume works for.
AK: But having said that, it doesn’t mean that everybody who’s got that resume is going to be good for the job. Tio Hardiman, who created the interrupters, is really good about getting word about who’s getting out of prison and who’s made some decision about taking a different track in their life.
We actually filmed some of the interviews where they go through prospective interrupters. In those interviews, Tio will give these hypothetical situations and ask how they’d respond. Once they’re hired there’s this extensive training that they go through. But I think the thing that really in the end is most important is they’ve got each other watching them. There’s some kind of self-checking there. And to be honest some of the interrupters are much more effective than others. We happened to end up with three of the better ones.
SJ: It wasn’t happenstance. We gravitated to them because it was so clear. And they had such distinctly different approaches too. They’re not all doing it the same way. Cobe is everybody’s friend. Ameena is like the street therapist. Of course Eddie, one of the things we loved about him, as Alex said earlier, is the way in which he is able to think outside the box. He found a way into schools when it’s really hard for interrupters to get into schools because the school thinks that says “We have a problem.” So how did he get in? Through art he was able to talk to kids before they’re really challenged by the violence in the streets. We thought that was brilliant.
Steve, did you shoot this movie in any of the same locations as “Hoop Dreams” and have they changed at all?
SJ: We did some shooting on the West Side that didn’t really end up in the film and those were some of the same neighborhoods. In “Hoop Dreams” we shot primarily in Cabrini Green and the West Side of Chicago. Most of the shooting in this film in the African-American community was in Englewood on the South Side. So it was not a community that I personally had spent any time in, but it is very much like the communities that I had.
I started “Hoop Dreams” back in 1987. Today looking at those same communities there’s more abandoned lots, there’s more foreclosed homes, there’s fewer people living there because people up and left and many of them have not moved on to prosperous living in the suburbs. There’s still the same kind of desperation and lack of opportunity. In some ways, we’ve made progress. There’s certainly a much larger black middle class than there was twenty-five years ago. Those are the success stories. But at the same time these communities are remarkably unchanged and in many ways have changed for the worse. That’s a pretty damning indictment, I think.