Is Violence Contagious? A Talk With the Creators of 'The Interrupters'

The struggle for peace in tragedy-stricken urban neighborhoods, captured on film by Alex Kotlowitz and Steve James

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Kartemquin Films

Can violence be "cured?" A new documentary from Hoop Dreams director Steve James and journalist/author Alex Kotlowitz offers an in-depth look at a catastrophic epidemic of urban bloodshed—and the people trying to stop it.

A film of epic scope, infused with grand emotions, The Interrupters depicts the work of CeaseFire, a Chicago-based program geared toward stopping inner city street violence through the outreach efforts of its “interrupters.” These are former gang members imbued with unique insight and the courage to insert themselves into precarious situations with the goal of reducing simmering tensions and possibly saving lives.

Inspired by Kotlowitz’s 2008 New York Times Magazine article about the organization, James teamed up with the writer and spent 14 months capturing the efforts of the Department of Justice-endorsed organization on the streets of Chicago. Pinpointing three interrupter protagonists with compelling stories of their own, the film is at once a searing portrait of an American catastrophe and the uplifting depiction of people who’ve been there before sacrificing much to stop it.

Here, James and Kotlowitz share their thoughts on the experience:

What do you make of CeaseFire founder Gary Slutkin’s notion that the key to confronting the violence epidemic in this country is to approach it as a disease that needs to be cured?

Alex Kotlowitz: I think it’s a really useful framework, in the sense that one of the things it does right away is take moral judgment out of the equation. He talks about this in the film: It’s not about good and bad people. Rather it’s about intervening, in their lingo, to try to interrupt the transmission of this disease, whether it’s from person to person [or] from generation to generation. So I think it’s really helpful in that regard. The other thing that I think is also really useful: Gary Slutkin talks about how in public health, one of the ways you deal with infectious diseases is by trying to change behavior. That’s precisely what the interrupters are trying to do in the end.

I think it’s also interesting—one of the debates that takes place [is], what about all the conditions in these communities that clearly have a profound effect on the lives of individuals there and clearly are somehow related to the violence? I think it’s a debate and a discussion worth having. Do you simply target the violence in this very direct manner that CeaseFire is doing, or do you also have to [also] deal with some of these larger issues?

Steve James: I think Alex and me probably think there’s a middle path between those two ideas. And I think what we witnessed in the streets with the interrupters is that very thing. They don’t just mediate a violent conflict and move on. They mediate a violent conflict and then that is their way into this person. … They realize there’s this need to do more than just mediate a conflict at the moment.

How did you gain the trust of CeaseFire and the interrupters you featured?

SJ: Alex’s relationship with them was key. He’d spent many months in the organization, he’d done a piece that they really felt had really fairly and very intelligently described the work that they do. … That trust in Alex, for doing the article, got passed onto both of us in terms of doing the film. Which is not to say, though, that it didn’t take time to build that trust individually with the folks we ended up following. … With each of [the interrupters we followed] there was a process of building that kind of relationship that allowed for that kind of trust, both for them to share their own stories but also that trust to want us with them out in the streets.

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Robert Levin writes about film and other entertainment topics for amNewYork, Inside Jersey, Backstage, and elsewhere. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online guild.

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