Friday, July 29, 2011

Steve James' THE INTERRUPTERS: a important documentary that should be better. Or maybe longer.

When I first heard about THE INTERRUPTERS --the new documentary from Steve James (inspired by The New York Times Magazine cover story by Alex Kotlowitz, who co-produced the film) -- it was said to last nearly three hours. When I was notified of the screening for the theatrical-length version, however, its running time has fallen to just over two. Initially -- being forever pressed for time to see yet one more movie -- I was delighted at this news. Now, after viewing the film, I am not so sure.

Taking place around Chicago, in mostly the ghetto area -- where the murder statistics for Americans here beat out those for Americans in Iraq! -- the movie details the lives of a handful of "interrupters," mostly former gang member who've now given their lives over to interrupting and often preventing violent situations from escalating into murder. The great gift of Mr. James (at right), as shown by the two documentaries of his that I have seen -- this one and Hoop Dreams (his narrative-based movies Prefontaine and Joe and Max have been pretty good, too) -- is his ability to point a relentless-yet-seemingly-invisible camera at his subjects and get them to open up as completely as possible. Even when, in the case of some of the male subjects, the fellows have great trouble doing this, their very difficulty speaks volumes and proves in some ways as moving as the women (who generally and typically find it easier to express their thoughts and feelings).

Now this is, of course, the goal of most documentary filmmakers who give us people as their subjects. But Mr. James simply excels at the task. This is true of both the "interrupters" whom he captures and the young (and sometimes not so) people they are interrupting, who begin the film angry-as-hell and bound to do something bad about it but who end up, if not "cured" of their anger, at least more able to deal with it intelligently and fruitfully. If, as the film notes, statistics shows a 40 to 45 per cent drop in violent incidents since these interruptions began, even if the entire drop cannot be laid at their feet, certainly a good portion can be -- which means the saving of many more lives.

In the course of the film we see what the taking of lives means to family and friends of the dead. Via the actual, moment-to-moment look at the process of "interrupting," we understand how it works, as well as how difficult and treacherous it can be. (One interrupter was killed in action, though we don't see or hear much about that.) We get some of the background of our "heroes," as well, especially the young woman named Ameena Matthews, above, right, who comes from a gang history. The daughter of a former gang leader and the former girlfriend of another, she is now married to an Iman of a local mosque and is heavily into the Muslim religion (as are some of the folk she interrupts). Her story, as well as her personal-ity, is most impressive. Early on, she reminds us of that old saw, "Sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me."  On these streets, she says, words can quickly lead to death.

Among the interrupted are an array of struggling people: Latoya, with her sons who are at each others' throats and involved in things they should not be; L'il Mikey (above, left) who desperately wants and needs a job; Caprisha, (below, right, with Ameena) an overweight, angry young woman who repeatedly destroys her own best chance; even Flamo (in doorway, one photo down), an older guy who should know better, is ready to wreak vengeance on a neighbor who ratted on Flamo's family.

We go back and forth among these people and their helpers, into community meetings, on the street, at school and home. These interruptions are important and helpful and maybe they'll even catch on in other major cities besides Chicago (maybe they already have). But I would have liked to have known more about why Chicago would have this enormously high crime rate when New York's Harlem evidently does not. (Of course we could be lying about our own statistics, just as, under NYC's most recent two mayors, we have lied -- or let the jiggered numbers lie -- about so many things, from education to crime.)

The movie indicates in a round-about way that these interruptions, while difficult and frightening, are now in place because the normal avenues for populace protection -- government, police, education, etc. -- are not doing their job and or that job is not working. Once again those who need help most are forced to take matters into their own hands and deal with them as best they can. I'd have liked more investigation of the reasons for this. As usual, when the ghetto come up in government, it's all about tamping down crime and little else. Can Chicago really be a more racist and/or less helpful city than New York, Los Angeles, Houston or Philadelphia? And what about Detroit? Clearly, I am asking too much, and this is fodder for further documentaries.

Still I would love to know what was in those missing minutes. As it is, the movie seems simultaneously not long enough and a bit too long. By the finale, the interruptions, as important as they may be, have begun to appear, in the manner that they are presented and achieved, a bit been-there/done-that. Yes, seeing all this is, as other critics have pointed out, "heartbreaking" and/or "heart-bursting." But I think at this point in our documentary movie-going, we ready for something other than having our emotions heightened. A little less of the in-your-face and more of the bigger picture might have been further revealing.

The Interrupters, from Cinema Guild, opens today in New York City at the IFC Center. You can click here to see news of other upcoming screenings, though only in the NYC area. Surely this worthwhile documentary will be opening across the entire country?

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