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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Blessed Are the Peacemakers
by Betty Jo Tucker

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Donald Levit wrote The Interrupters review. We're working on correcting this glitch as soon as possible.)

A week after release, The Interrupters is also scheduled for a six-night theatrical run at Harlem’s donation documentary Maysles Cinema, following director Steve James’s “Master Class Series” appearance there, a Q&A, and a retrospective of three other acclaimed films of his.

Coproduced with friend Alex Kotlowitz, whose The New York Times Magazine piece was its starting point, this newest has already won several festival prizes and, like Hoop Dreams, covers a time period in inner-city Chicago African-American lives in the Direct or Living Cinema approach of allowing people to reveal themselves as though (in theory) no camera or crew were there to record.

On analogy with Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle of quantum mechanics, critics of this American version of French cinéma vérité argue that the presence of observers alters subjects’ behavior, and, indeed, The Interrupters does seem a blend of the on-the-spot newslike, on the one hand, and the self-conscious thought-out or camera-aware on the other. An example of the “real” happening in front of our, or the camera’s, eyes pops up at once, “an incident right out front” of the CeaseFire Englewood Neighborhood Office. Some spoken words are furnished subtitles because of resultant sound-recording limitations or public unfamiliarity with street lingo. In contrast, one-on-one’s on park benches and too frequent talking in cars -- a non-fiction fad -- appear less than off-the-cuff.

Windy City visuals really obviate the included titles announcing the four seasons of filming. Now Illinois-wide, CeaseFire was founded in 1995 by Gary Slutkin, a doctor who battled epidemics in Africa before turning his sights on our homegrown plague of violence. Its method, confrontational, controversial and dangerous -- one member is shot twice -- is for “Violence Interrupters” to put themselves in the line of fire (but sanely), boots on the ground in the heart of volatile situations, to keep them from downspiraling into further Hatfield-McCoy/Grangerford-Shepherdson cycles of “the madness.”

Taking months to gain the confidence of those involved on both sides of the equation, and keeping the crew to a minimal three -- James therefore doubled as cameraman -- the film focuses on three particular Interrupters and their cases, though others are involved, both in the field and at Wednesday organization meetings, most notably director and spokesman Tio Hardiman. The whole is not unlike, say, Girlhood and Very Young Girls, indicting works featuring individuals once part of the problem now become part of the solution; though showing what can be achieved from the grass roots up, these non-fictions are also realistic in that failures figure in, as well, in the underbelly of racism, poverty, drugs and broken families and schools.

Articulate, personable and brave, the three came up from the same mean streets they now seek to calm. The most directly confrontational is Ameena Matthews, wife of a local imam, mother of four and daughter of a famous now-imprisoned gang leader. “Cobe” Williams’ father was murdered when he was not yet in his teens, and, now married with four children, he himself has served time for drugs and attempted murder. The most retiring of the three, single and bespectacled Eddie Bocanegra covers the Latino Little Village and was incarcerated fourteen years for a murder committed at seventeen.

Their “personal stories of redemption” are worked into their home lives today and their actual casework. Several such cases are covered at greater length, involving victims’ grieving families and friends, surly outcasts, young jobless ex-cons, hair-trigger self-appointed avengers of insult and honor, and schoolchildren being taught to paint.

An original three hundred hours of shooting trimmed to just shy of two-and-a-half, The Interrupters, like James’s three-hour Hoop Dreams, is still long, but who is to say what and where this eye-opener could have been cut. Indicative of its heart, Chicago-based Kartemquin Films is mounting an outreach and civic awareness/engagement campaign and workshops in conjunction with its release.

(Released by Kartemquin Films in association with Rise Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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