Murder rates in the US are still incredibly high at approximately 4.8 per 100,000 people, but is actually half of what it used to be in 1980. Whilst this is a massive improvement over the last 30 years, there is clearly much more that can be done. It is thought that the majority of murders in the US are gang related but a new documentary from Dogwoof proves that in Chicago at least, this is not quite true. The Interrupters was an idea by Oscar-nominated director Steve James, whose street-level stars of his film Hoop Dreams were murdered within their own communities. James wanted to see what the causes of these murders were and how bad it was. The results surprised him. It actually turned out that a lot of the violence and murder were often senseless acts commited by aggrieved young adults, many of school age, who weren't in gangs but felt slighted by a perception of disrespect from those around them. And as the violent reaction to this disrespect would then escalate to a response, the spiral of violence just continued.
The Interrupters focuses on a community-led group called CeaseFire, founded by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin who believes that the spread of violence mimics infectious diseases such as the cholera or AIDS that he used to work with. His solution: seek out the most infected within the community and stop the infection at source. To do this, CeaseFire has a number of volunteers called Interrupters. These volunteers seek out those within the community that are likely to either commit violence or murder, place themselves within the situation and attempt to calm things down and diffuse the situation, attempting to convince those troubled souls with turning the other cheek and resolving their differences a bit more amicably.
Now you would think that this is one hell of a job for volunteer workers, and you'd be right, but you'd be wrong if you thought that this was the calling for some pampered left wing leaning do-gooders. The three volunteers this film focuses on (Ameena, Cobe and Eddie) are all ex-gang bangers - that delightful Amercian phrase for people heavily involved in gangs. All have a heavy history of violence, prostitution and even murder whilst in their gangs, and all are well known on the streets and respected. They use their personal histories and street credibility to help them convince the people to listen to them and stop the violence. The film provides some real insights into their life within the gangs, their history and that of their families and how they managed to drag themselves out of the gutter and try to help their communities. Some found religion, some come to the realisation that things need to change by themselves, and some can point to personal tragedy as the turning point.
Regardless, they all work tirelessly to resolve the conflicts and the many complex moral dilemmas they come across on a daily basis. They step fearlessly into the middle of potential conflict, try to pacify adversaries (often people they know) and acknowledge the grievances whilst attempting to pull them back from taking that fateful decision that will potentially end someone's life and change their lives forever. More often than not, they are successful with some interventions taking a long time. There's a great example of the patience shown when one of the Interrupters just keeps talking and socialising with a young man who is so frustrated that it really does look as if his story will end tragically by shooting the object of his ire, but then suddenly he gets it all together and finds a job as a security guard; his demeanour is much calmer than you've seen previously and he has clearly turned a corner. And that must be so rewarding.
That isn't to say it's all plain sailing. Ameena struggles to get a young woman to turn her life around and this woman ends up in prison for breaking the terms of her parole. Despite the fact that she clearly is happy to see Ameena and is still trying to sort herself out, you can't help but feel that some people are a lost cause - and this is more because they don't believe in themselves and have low self-esteem. We also see the real danger of the work of the Interrupters with one of the volunteers, not one of the three featured, ending up in hospital with a couple of bullets in his back after attempting to mediate in a confrontation. Neither the volunteer nor Slutkin hold the grudge or give up, this is just one setback amongst many.
As usual with Dogwoof, The Interrupters is a class documentary that really shows that not only are there major problems on the US streets but that despite all the rhetoric by politicians, it's ordinary people who step up and attempt to clean it all up. They don't do this for the publicity, I'd never heard of the organisation, or the money but for the community and a belief that things can change. It does seem at times a little like Canute and the tides, but I can't knock these people for trying and also, in the main, for turning their own troubled lives around. These people, all of them, are unsung heroes of their communities and I can only hope that they slowly but surely change their communities for the better for ever. The Interrupters is no glossy piece, it's gritty, powerful, emotionally charged and moving in turn and shows it exactly like it is - and sometimes we need to see this in order to understand just how messed up things get, and how easily over something very trivial.