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.

What do you make of the very positive reactions the film’s gotten on the festival circuit?

SJ: Well, first of all there’s a variety of reactions, but pretty much across the board it’s been very encouraging. It’s been on the festival circuit, so what that means is that most of the people who’ve seen it to this point are film lovers. In terms of the makeup of that audience, it’s generally white, it’s generally at least middle class if not higher and for that audience it’s been eye-opening and it’s been an emotional experience. People in the Q&As have wanted to know what’s going on with the subjects of the film and what can they do in their communities.

But the other thing is, is that at some of the festivals they’ve been really great about pulling in people that don’t normally go to their festivals to see this film. They’ve connected with community organizations. Some community organizations found their way to the film, simply by reading about it and showing up. We’ve been really encouraged by that because we’ve heard across the board in virtually every festival, every city and not even in just this country but in Sheffield, England, that this is a film that speaks to issues in their community that they feel need to be addressed, and they want to find ways to bring the film there.

AK: At a film festival in Columbia, Missouri, we went to a high school and we showed just a couple scenes from the film. A young girl came up to Cobe (an interrupter featured in the film) afterward and she was all choked up and she pulled him aside. I asked Cobe later what transpired. She wanted to talk to him because she said her experience was so much like his and she needed someone to talk to. She saw some of herself in his story. What could be more affirming than that for people?

In what ways was making the film a hopeful experience, despite the grim subject matter?

AK: I think going in, Steve and I were kind of braced for a year of a rather grim landscape, just given the subject matter. What was surprising for us, in some ways, was how inspiring that year was. We knew on some level that the interrupters’ work was pretty amazing, but we came out of it with a sense that they were really inspirational to us and I hope to others as well. Steve and I talk about [how] in some ways we’ve never had so much fun working on a project. … That’s not to say there weren’t moments during that year that were incredibly emotional.

SJ: I think for me, anyway, going in—and I think Alex agrees with this too—I felt that these communities must be quite dispirited and completely paralyzed and maybe even numb to all that’s going on there. Some of that had risen going all the way back to doing Hoop Dreams, but [also] just from following what’s been going on in those communities over the years since then. There [are] certainly those feelings there, but one of the things that was really powerfully moving to me is to see that despite all that, despite the loss of life, despite not being surprised when somebody loses a loved one, unfortunately, the pain and the feelings of loss are just as strong as if I lost a son. People have not given up on their lives and they haven’t given up on the hope that things can be better.