The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold talks to director Steve James about his new documentary The Interrupters.
In this new documentary, producer Alex Kotlowitz and director Steve James, director of 1994’s award-winning Hoop Dreams, spend a year following a Chicago organization called CeaseFire, a group working tirelessly to lessen the amount of violence plaguing their city. These “Interrupters” of violence are reformed criminals themselves, thus they understand the anger, hurt, and frustration that can elicit such acts; but the Interrupters aim to break this vicious cycle. The Interrupters are not trying to disband gangs; rather, their aims are more simple, as they physically step between deadly conflicts and attempt to talk people out of killing. The Interrupters themselves stand as inspiring examples of how people can change. As the film suggests, violence is a learned behavior and not what human beings truly feel is right. By engaging native Chicagoans in real, honest conversation, these Interrupters help them to do one of the hardest things in life: forget retaliation and just let it go. I sat down with director Steve James to discuss the film.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold In filming people like this, at their most vulnerable or violent or furious, what keeps it from being exploitation, putting the pain of others on-screen and selling it?
Steve James That’s one of the hard questions of documentary filmmaking. You can make documentaries about happy subjects or comedies, where you come out with a little pep in your step. But a lot of the documentaries that get made, and that many of us love are films dealing with people in difficult circumstances in their lives, and the power of showing that is unmistakable. I think it’s all in how you approach the people in the course of making the film and how you present their stories. I always want to feel like I’m a human being at the end of the day, not just a filmmaker. Sometimes that line is tricky to navigate. When tragic things happen to people, you realize as a filmmaker you may have this tremendously emotional response, especially if you’ve gotten to know them, because you’re thinking of them as a friend, but there’s also a voice at the back of your head saying, “Wow, that’s a powerful scene.” I think any filmmaker of conscience struggles with that. I think what you try to do is always maintain that kind of relationship with your subjects and have them understand that this is part of the story. Sometimes you have to sit down and explain to them—I’ve had to do that. You say: I’m sorry, I know this is painful, but let me explain why this is also important. I’ve had remarkably good luck with people understanding.
AJG Did anyone who was a focus of the Interrupters’ work become resistant or refuse to be on camera? How did you convince people to share their intimate stories?
SJ Before we even showed up in any of these situations, the Interrupters themselves let people know. They said, “There’s a film being made, they will be with me, how do you feel about it?” Some people said no, or the Interrupters knew they wouldn’t want it and discounted them. But we were genuine about this. We said you can also indicate to people that if we come and they don’t want their faces seen, but they’ll let us come, that’s okay. At certain times that was the expectation, but once it happened, and we had seen people again through the Interrupters, they got to a point where they felt comfortable enough with us. But you do see some faces blurred in the movie. And then the word got passed to Eddie, fairly early, that we weren’t to do filming of gang members in this one community called Little Village. We had done some filming there, and they weren’t happy about it. So the word got passed, and we honored that. We stopped.
AJG Why focus on the three Interrupters you did: Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra?
SJ Each of them are unique individuals, very different from each other, and all have unique backgrounds and unique ways of doing their jobs. Ameena, she’s one of the only two women Interrupters, she’s a practicing Muslim, she’s the daughter of Jeff Fort (infamous gang leader), and she’s this incredibly charismatic, brilliant …
AJG Powerful speech-maker.
SJ Yes, not only that, but then she can sit on the bench with Caprysha and talk to her like she’s her big sister. That was pretty obvious, that Ameena was someone we wanted to follow. Cobe, he kind of emerged and wasn’t someone we identified early as wanting to follow. Tio Hardiman, who created the Interrupters program, when we started showing up to their Wednesday meetings regularly, he would cajole the guys and say, “We’re doing this film, if you have a mediation that they can be there for, I want you to call them.” And Cobe was the guy who called. And he had this knack for getting us in; some of the most dicey, most, “I can’t believe I’m here watching this” moments in the movie are courtesy of Cobe. Because he had this knack of downplaying our presence, he loved to call us his “film crew,” which was funny, and say They’re doing a film on the work I do. Boom. Move on.
AJG He has a very amiable way about him, and people trust that.
SJ And they trust him! Amiable is a great word. He’s such a likable guy in the community that it’s hard to say no to him. It’s hard to say no to Ameena in a different way! (laughter) You don’t dare say no to Ameena. And then with Eddie it was great because we wanted to follow one Latino Interrupter. And we had our eye on other people. But then Alex, my producing partner on the film, first met Eddie. He was at the table, and Alex thought he seemed interesting, went to lunch with him, and got Eddie’s story. He came back and said, “Maybe this is our guy,” because Eddie was haunted. He’d only been out of prison for two years. He was haunted by the act he had committed (murder). That was fascinating to us, to see a guy still very much wrestling with having committed the ultimate act of violence. The other thing that really struck us about Eddie was, he’s so inquisitive, he’s the one that asks questions. He’s the one that says, “If I mediate a crisis today, what about tomorrow?” He’s the one that says, “Is what we’re doing just a Band-Aid?” He’s the one that comes up with different, interesting ways to try to reach young kids.
AJG Cobe Williams served time for attempted murder, Ameena is daughter of one of Chicago’s biggest gang leaders and used to run around on the streets herself, Eddie was in jail for murder, and now they are making huge efforts to help stop such violence. One of the big themes of the film is reform and redemption. Do you, after witnessing these things, believe people can truly learn and change?
SJ I absolutely do. I’ve seen it in other films, but never more strikingly than in this film. To see, as you say, through the examples of Cobe, Eddie, and Ameena, profound change is possible in the lives of people. When you first meet Flamo, who is pissed off and wants to hurt someone, do you ever imagine where he’s gonna be by the end of the movie? No. You also see that it’s hard to change. That’s what Caprysha’s story stands for. Someone who is unwilling and unable at times, and stubborn and damaged. I view her as the anti-Precious story. She has a lot in common with that character except she shows that change is not easy.
AJG Because it’s real life, not a fiction film.
SJ Right. Then the other thing that struck us, maybe it’s a semantic thing, but I think it’s more than that, is that, in some ways we came to feel … one way to look at this is that people can change. The other way to look at it is: that what they’re changing to become is who they really were to begin with.
AJG But circumstances made them go another route?
SJ Yes. People don’t want to be violent.
AJG You believe that intrinsically, people don’t want to be violent, but that that kind of behavior is circumstantial or learned?
SJ Yeah, they’re living in a world, in neighborhoods, where there is a feeling of a Darwinian struggle for survival. If you do something to me, however petty, and I don’t respond, then I’m setting myself up for more. The Interrupters are trying to break that thought pattern. And say, “Wait: think this through. There are ways for you to deal with this that will be better for you. You may not end up dead or in prison.” Like Ameena says to the kids at the Peace Summit: If you don’t retaliate, and then don’t end up dead or in prison, do you still think you’re the one who was punked? A guy like Eddie, you see him in old photographs and he looks very different from the Eddie that is before you. It’s hard to imagine he was ever that person.
AJG Ameena talks about getting people to laugh at themselves, to find the soft spot in that person, “Not weak but soft,” … this is about the power of humor. And the film is funny at times—what the characters say is funny, their reactions to the world. How important do you think humor might be, even in the face of death and violence?
SJ Humor is always a way for people to cope with the world, no matter where you’re from. The world is funny—sometimes it’s darkly funny. You see some of that in this film. I’ve always felt as a filmmaker, and I know Alex as a writer, that you want to capture the breadth of the experience of what you witnessed. You don’t want to just focus on the tragedy of it all. Life includes humor. I think what’s brilliant about what Ameena says is that there are ways to use that, to take the level of tension down in a situation, to deflate it. She’s sitting on the porch, and they’re laughing about the fact that this guy got hit with a rock. The guy who got hit with a rock is laughing too about how he tumbled over. They’re laughing about it, and you get him laughing about it, and he’s no longer on the rampage.
AJG Cobe seems to be great at that too, with his casual way of downplaying things. And this makes people open up. Flamo is very funny. So we see this side of him that’s not only angry and violent but also smart and interesting.
SJ Exactly. In fact, when we were cutting the scene, we’d show it to some people in the course of finishing the film and getting feedback, and we noticed how we would laugh. We wondered whether other people would find it funny too, and when it was clear that they did, one of the things we did is go back to Cobe and tell him we need a line of voiceover, for him to say, “Flamo is a guy that can make you laugh, but if you fuck with him, you’d better bring it.” And that says it. When I’ve asked people about it, they say—we get it, he’s dangerous, but he’s also funny. I think that was important: we didn’t want people to get caught up in the humor and think they’re watching a dramatic film about a funny guy.
AJG That last scene, when we see Flamo and Cobe together, when Flamo essentially says, “You were bugging me, your voice was in my head like a fly, and that’s what made me give in and change.” And that’s so funny but it’s—
SJ —a beautiful analogy.
AJG Yes. The Interrupters have this idea that conversation is perhaps the most powerful tool of all. They just talk to people. Do you think a lot of violence in the world could similarly be solved simply by communication, conversation, and listening?
SJ I think it helps enormously. To me, there’s that one revealing moment in the Peace Summit when they finally get the kids from both schools together, the different factions and neighborhoods, and get the kids to talk. There was a part of that Summit that was devoted to speeches. And you see the kids put their heads down. That was so true, that day. They don’t want to hear any speeches, they’re tired of them. They want to talk.
AJG They have things to say.
SJ Yes, and they want to be heard. This helps them practically figure out how they can deal with it. I love that scene when Ameena is talking to the kids and asks, “Who likes to fight?” And a few people raise their hands and say, “I do.” But then the further you go into it, you realize it’s not that they want to fight … .
AJG Some say, “We don’t want to, but we have to.”
SJ They feel like they have to. And I think for most of those kids, that’s exactly what it is. They’ve convinced themselves that they want to fight. It’s a classic thing: when I was a kid and two guys were going to get in a fight, usually they wanted someone to step between them, but they can’t show that. So they’re all like, “Let me go, let me go …”—and yet they’re actually happy. Because they don’t want to do it. They just want to be perceived as strong.
AJG What’s interesting is that in so many of these fights, the violence happens because of love: people are defending their family or friends. It obviously doesn’t justify the violence. But a lot of it is “defending your own.”
SJ I think there are two mistakes that are made routinely in the media: one is they attribute the violence to gangs. A perfect example in the movie: Kenneth and Bud and Latoya, the family with the two brothers who are in different cliques. Had one of them, God forbid, killed the other, I expect the story in the paper would have been, “Here are two brothers in warring cliques who killed each other, isn’t this a tragedy.” It’s true, it is a tragedy, but that’s not why they would have killed each other, why they were pointing weapons at each other. It was family stuff. The cliques were a manifestation of the family, not the reverse. The other mistake the media makes is focusing on the things that triggered the violence. Someone’s shoes got stolen. Someone dissed someone in the hallway. There’s that section of the movie where Ameena lays out how people get to that place where you wake up in the morning and there’s nothing to eat, you’re wearing hand-me-down clothes, your mom has been abused by her boyfriend, whatever—and then when you walk to school, and somebody bumps into you, that’s who gets it. I think that is so key to understanding. But the media … I remember reading these things for years. One I remember that stuck with me is: a guy killed his son because he took the last piece of cake in the refrigerator. And that’s not why it happened.
AJG Well, people want explanations or simple reasons.
SJ Simple! The effect it has is for people who read these articles and don’t know any better to think, Who are these people? They must be born violent. Who would do that? And what that fails to capture is all of these other forces in these people’s lives that bring them to that point.
AJG So what the Interrupters try to do is present another outlet for that energy.
SJ Absolutely. And they understand it. They’ve been through it. They try to find practical solutions. I love that line on the bench with Cobe talking to Kenneth: “So you and your brother both have guns—that means you have to go to sleep every night with one eye open!” Kenneth hadn’t thought about it that way before. He looks like: yeah, why would I want to do that? It’s being practical about a very crazy situation. Telling them to think about all the ways these actions are impacting them. You can’t even have a moment’s peace, not even when you’re asleep! Who wants that?
AJG And it seems with a lot of the kids especially, providing them with such conversation, gets them thinking in ways they hadn’t thought before. Because they are surrounded by people who think the same way as they do. So that’s great.
AJG Obviously documentaries can be very easily edited or manipulated. Did you ever stage any scenes or go back and reshoot things you had missed? Or did you just try to be there to capture it all?
SJ I don’t stage stuff. Yes, if you want to get someone walking out of the office, you’ll say, “Hold on, let me get in front of you,” if you consider that staging. But that’s just wanting to get a shot. Sometimes you may on occasion need to go back and grab cutaways of the environment that you missed, just to help cut the scene. But no, nothing like, “Hang on, that was great a second ago, can you do that again for me?”
AJG Okay. Because it’s impressive, how much you did get.
SJ But even great moments and great scenes go on longer than they will play in the movie. Even though in the moment, when you’re watching them, you think every single second of it is riveting.
AJG That’s the really hard job of editing.
SJ But you have to make sure the viewer feels like they didn’t miss anything. So it’s great that you felt that way! Because I definitely missed stuff. You always do. I don’t shoot multiple cameras, it’s just one camera.
AJG That’s amazing. Why do you think a documentary film on this topic is so powerful as opposed to a fiction film? Do you believe that movies do have the power to affect change in the world, and why are docs specifically so important?
SJ Whenever I watch fiction, as much as I love going to fiction films and seeing gritty fictional stories, and there’s a real movement in fiction to shoot films in a gritty, documentary way … look at The Fighter. I loved that movie. It was shot like a documentary and acted like one, the language and the way people interacted. But there is always that voice in my head, especially if it’s not based on a true story, where when it really gets uncomfortable, I remind myself that this is fiction. It’s a bit of a safety valve, if you will. And of course if it’s a biopic, the thing you always ask yourself if an amazing thing happens is: did they make that part up? Because they do make up a lot of stuff. But if you trust a documentary, and as viewers you make that decision every time you watch a film … you don’t go in thinking: This is a documentary so everything I’m going to see, I’ll take as gospel. I don’t, and I don’t think anybody does. We’ve all had the experience of seeing films that are biased, or feel trumped up, or feel false and set up. I think one of the great and powerful things about a documentary is you feel like you’re really witnessing real people’s lives, tragedies, triumphs. And there’s nothing more powerful than that for me. And what comes with that is a profound responsibility as a filmmaker. You do what you can to have the audience not sit in judgment of people but understand them.
AJG A neutral tone?
SJ No, it’s more of an empathic tone that tries to capture people in their complexity. I’m not trying to say everyone in the film you should love. But I’m trying to engage you to the point of caring about people in the film, even if you don’t like everything about them. So you at least come out the other end understanding them, what those people are going through in that neighborhood. The easiest thing to do in a movie is to sit in the dark and pass judgment. It’s built in. You’re safely removed, you sit there and scrutinize and think, Hmm, do I like this person or not?
AJG But you don’t know them and probably never will.
SJ You’ll only know what we’re showing you. That’s why it’s a profound responsibility as a storyteller. All you can show them is what you feel they need to see. We’re not showing you all 300 hours we captured. So we have to make those choices for you. Big responsibility. I’ve done other films where that was a bigger challenge than this film. Because we admired them as people and what they’re doing. There are things we don’t share with you because they didn’t even share them with us. Eddie, Ameena, and Cobe don’t talk in great detail about their past criminal behavior with us. They gave us the broad strokes, and that was enough. And we feel like that’s enough for you, as a viewer. We don’t need to know the nitty-gritty details of everything they did. We said, Tell us what you’re comfortable telling us. And we don’t need to know about the things you didn’t go to prison for, that if you’d been caught you would have gone for. We vetted this film with a lawyer to make sure we wouldn’t show things that would cause the cops to come looking for Flamo or somebody else.
AJG So your characters are protected.
SJ Yes. That was important to us.
The Interrupters premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and opened on Friday, July 29th at IFC Center.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is a film critic based in New York City.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.