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The Interrupters Documentary Essay


The reports from around the country are alarming. During one night in Chicago this past April, 19 people were shot, seven of them fatally. Over Memorial Day weekend, eight people were murdered in Baltimore. Indeed, since 2004, homicides have risen dramatically around the country: up 52% in Memphis, 26% in Miami, 29% in Houston, 53% in Oakland. For all but three of the last 27 years, the leading cause of death among African-Americans between the ages of 15 to 34 has been homicide. The stubborn persistence of violence in our urban centers is troubling and perplexing. Most of the shootings are contained to particular areas in cities; in Chicago, where on average five people were shot each day last year, over 80 percent of the shootings were concentrated in half the police districts. So the rest of us pay it little heed. We've completely underestimated the lasting effects of such hostility on the spirit of individuals and the community. It can profoundly weaken the fortitude of families and the ability of children to learn at school. It impairs economic development, scaring away new businesses and only further isolating these neighborhoods. It changes how and where children play, and furthers distrust between neighbors as well as between residents and the police. Violence, in the end, is arguably the most corrosive force in these communities. In the past, conservatives have suggested that street violence is simply the result of the drug trade and bad behavior, and the solution has been to get the bad guys off the street. Liberals have blamed economic deprivation and America's love affair with guns. Yet, years of increased law enforcement, more restrictive gun legislation, and economic development programs have failed to significantly stem the violence in many urban neighborhoods. What's really going on? Or as Tio Hardiman of the group CeaseFire asks: "Why the Madness?"THE FILM The Interrupters chronicles the violence during one year in Chicago. Our prism is a group of men and women in Chicago, most of them former gang leaders and drug dealers who themselves have been participants in the brutality of the streets. Through them, we try to make sense of what's going on. Why has this violence persisted or been allowed to persist for so long? And is there anything we can do about it? These men and women, a mix of African-Americans and Latinos, work for an organization called CeaseFire, a grand experiment to reconsider how we think about the violence. It's the brainchild of Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who for ten years battled infectious diseases in Africa. Slutkin believes that the spread of violence mimics that of infectious diseases like tuberculosis and AIDS, and so he argues the treatment should be similar: go after the most infected, and stop the infection at its source. As he did in Uganda in trying to curtail AIDS, Slutkin hopes to change behavior. In the case of Uganda, his efforts with the World Health Organization were largely aimed at changing people's sexual practices. In Chicago, he hopes to make it the norm to walk away from a dispute rather than escalate it.

The Interrupters have to deal with how to get someone to save face, Slutkin says. In other words, how do you not do a shooting if someone has insulted you, if all of your friends are expecting you to do that? What the Interrupters do is put social pressure in the other direction.

Slutkin wants to shift how we think about violence from a moral issue (good and bad people) to a public health one (healthy and unhealthy behavior). CeaseFire's methods have been employed in cities around the U.S., including Newark, Kansas City and Baltimore. It's also drawn international interest. Countries as varied as Jamaica and Iraq have or are considering implementing programs based on CeaseFire's public health model. (We recently filmed a delegation from South Africa visiting with CeaseFire.) Chicago is its home. The city has become a symbol for the senseless and discomfiting violence of our cities. When the beating death of Derrion Albert was caught on videotape this past fall, the city became the focus of national and international attention: A schoolboy beaten to death by other schoolboys. So many children have been killed that the local newspapers keep a running tally. Mourners erect street-side shrines to honor the fallen. At one public housing complex, a wall of over 200 names marks the neighborhood's victims. Death, violent death, has become so much a part of the landscape that a local politician, the grandfather of a recent victim, told a local reporter, "These things will happen." Such resignation is common. Of the 25 most violent neighborhoods in America, four are in Chicago. The singular mission of the Interrupters -- whose job title feels almost self-explanatory -- is to interrupt the next shooting, to arbitrate disputes before they turn violent. Their reputations command respect in their neighborhoods -- or to use a public health term, they're "credible messengers." Through our Interrupters, the film will plunge viewers into the heart of their communities, a journey into the madness. While there will be plenty of powerful and emotional verite scenes in the film, we intend to develop a thoughtful, provocative conversation around what the Interrupters confront. Why is revenge so often the first impulse? Why the code of silence on the streets? Why do so many see physical confrontation as the only way to earn respect? Where does family come into play? These are questions that organically evolve out of the stories we tell. We will also look to other voices to help us make sense of what we see: Paul Collier, the author of "The Bottom Billion," who believes developing countries -- and by inference impoverished neighborhoods -- are often stymied by the cycle of violence or what he calls the "conflict trap"; Spencer Leak, the head of the South Side's premier funeral home who says of the youth in his community: they have a hatred for themselves because they know they're not going anywhere; or Dr. Luis Ortiz, a local professor of social work, who talks about the powerful allure guns and violence hold for the powerless in poor communities. When that 12 year-old kid pulls out that gun and starts shooting in the air, he says, "that kid has respect, and people fear him." We'll look to others as well, to talk about how and why violence can become so much a part of a community's psychology. Three Interrupters are our main guides through the film. Cobe Williams is one of the younger Interrupters and has served time for attempted murder. His father was beaten to death with a baseball bat when Cobe was 11. Cobe now lives in the suburbs with his wife and four children, and is still finding his way as an Interrupter, someone his older colleagues have taken under their wing. In one instance, Cobe visits a gang member nicknamed "Flame-o" whom he'd met in the county jail. Flame-o is armed with a handgun, ready to go after another gang member who had gotten his brother arrested. Cobe uses what he's learned, first coaxing Flame-o to lunch and then to an Interrupters meeting where Flame-o is clearly affected by what he hears. What's most remarkable about Cobe is his jovial demeanor, which is hard to square with his former life and his work. As one young man Cobe helped tells us, Cobe used to be all about the gang, now CeaseFire's his gang. Whereas Cobe is a prankster who often defuses situations with his humor, Interrupter Eddie Bocanegra, earnest and soft-spoken, is still trying to come to terms with having taken someone's life. At the age of 17, Eddie retaliated for the shooting of a friend (he was paralyzed) by killing a rival gang member. Eddie went to prison for 15 years. Now in his mid-thirties and just a couple of years out of prison, he's in school to become a social worker. As an Interrupter he has earned respect for his persistence. Recently, an older man who was a mentor was murdered and Eddie talks movingly of his very private battle with depression in the wake of his death. At one point, Eddie visits his former running buddy who had been shot and paralyzed years ago. It was in his name that Eddie had sought revenge. Eddie's deeply disappointed that his friend continues to run the streets, and so he tries to reconcile his love for his former running partner and his anger that he's still out there wreaking havoc. Eddie's struggling, and so takes refuge in his art by teaching painting to a class of sixth graders. But even there he feels compelled to talk about his past, and tells this group of youngsters about a friend who died in his arms.Ameena Matthews worked as an enforcer for a major drug dealer on the South Side. One of only two women Interrupters, she's the daughter of one of the city's most legendary gang leaders, Jeff Fort. Surprisingly, Ameena never worked for her father. She carved out her own criminal path, she says, as a teenage act of rebellion against an absent and inattentive father and an alcoholic and abusive mother. Today, Ameena is a devout Muslim and dedicated mother, but her toughness and reputation earns her such respect among the young men and women in her community, Englewood, that she is able to walk into volatile situations on the street with immunity. In the film, we see her do just that, whether its on the block surrounded by angry young men bent on retribution, or at the funeral for a slain young gangbanger.

Threaded through the film will be scenes of the weekly meeting of the Interrupters. It's an extraordinary gathering reminiscent of the drug cartel meetings in the HBO series, "The Wire", but here, some of the city's most ruthless and feared men and women now find themselves looking to undo some of the madness which they helped create. The Interrupters talk of the shootings and smoldering disputes in their communities. They ruminate on how they might intervene in a particular altercation, or reflect on why an intervention went bad. They tangle with their complicated relationship with the police. For instance, what's their obligation if they know the assailant in a crime? Do they adhere to the code of the streets or do they now have a different set of responsibilities? These meetings are incredibly lively, filled with tension, touched by pathos and infused with humor. They act as a support group for these men and women, many of whom are former rivals; a weekly opportunity to remind the Interrupters that their personal battles for redemption and for rebuilding their communities are not fought alone. Coming from lives defined by violence, it would be easy to stereotype these Interrupters. But as we come to know them intimately, we'll see past their bravado and be touched by their humility, inspired by their thoughtfulness and moved by their efforts. The Interrupters, we hope, will spur a national conversation. What's most impressive about the Interrupters is that they go about their work without passing judgment, and our hope is that as they take morality (good and bad people) out of the equation, we can create an honest, probing, thought provoking discussion around the violence in our cities. The Interrupters reflections will be supplemented by others who have thought deeply about the destructive tenacity of the violence. But in the end our experts are the Interrupters themselves like Eddie Bocanegra or Amena Matthews or Cobe Williams. As they go about their work, they confront the importance of family, the noxious nature of poverty, and the place of race. And they do it with incredible candor, directness and decisiveness.


The plague of violence in America's cities has unraveled communities. It's torn apart families, engendered distrust between neighbors, scared away businesses and incapacitated schools. It's been so corrosive that it's left many feeling resigned, if not paralyzed. Our hope is that The Interrupters will spur a national conversation around the violence, and leave people with a sense of promise. We believe the film can help restore faith in ourselves and in our ability to stem the shootings. To that end, an extensive, creative outreach program feels essential. We have some thoughts, which we'll sketch below, but we're also keenly aware that we need to partner with others more experienced than us in this arena.

During the last year-and-a-half of filming, we've had discussions with media consultants, national nonprofits and community organizations that have successfully implemented civic engagement campaigns around this topic. From these conversations we've begun to construct a strategy for engagement around the film that we believe will be both innovative and powerful.

We have a clear vision of the film's possibilities. Just as The Interrupters will be an exploration of urban violence at both the macro and ground levels, we hope that a social action campaign can do the same: engage people who live with the violence along with those who have been thoughtfully pursuing solutions.

We envision a three-pronged campaign that includes:

1) Spur a national and local policy debate on violence prevention, targeting systemic causes.

2) Target and meaningfully engage the country's most violent neighborhoods (as opposed to cities).

3) Employ cutting edge applications using transmedia as a way to specifically engage the youth, especially in those neighborhoods plagued by violence.

To be clear, we don't see this as three separate efforts, but rather, a set of principles to guide us. We intend to launch a social action campaign in early 2011, before the film is complete.

Our goal is to begin our outreach with a "hyper-local" approach, focusing on the most violent neighborhoods across America, and then spread beyond that. Last year, Andrew Shiller, a geographer, compiled a list of the 25 most violent neighborhoods. They're in a wide-range of cities, including Cincinnati, Baltimore, Memphis, Philadelphia and Little Rock, to name just a few. Chicago, with four neighborhoods on the list, has two more than any other city. Yet, when one looks at the rankings of the most violent cities, Chicago isn't even in the top 15. This reflects just how localized violent crime is in our cities, and underscores the need for a targeted approach.

Widening the discussion and debate

Too many films -- and as a result outreach programs -- unintentionally separate those who study and analyze chronic social issues from those who live with them daily. Academic debates often take place at great remove from the problems, and discussions in the affected neighborhoods -- usually in the form of town hall meetings -- tend to dissolve into understandable outrage and frustration directed at local bureaucrats and politicians. In our targeted communities, our hope is to spur an honest, candid and civil debate that would bring together the most innovative thinkers on urban violence with the residents of the affected community, along with professionals on the ground, including police officers, clergy, teachers, and health care workers. For this to transcend mere talk, it will require boots-on-the-ground organizing in each community along with an innovative use of media.

Engaging youth in affected communities

We especially want to explore ways to pull in teenagers and young adults since they represent the greatest number of victims and perpetrators. (For all but three of the last 27 years, the leading cause of death among African-Americas between the ages of 15 to 34 has been homicide.) We recognize that this poses a challenge. As we've observed in making the film, young people in these communities are routinely lectured to about the ills of gangs and the costs of violence in their neighborhoods. They've heard the war stories of elders ad nauseum, and tragically many have already experienced the pain and costs of violence first hand. We%u2019ve seen a craving on the part of young people to be heard on this subject, to talk both to each other and to adults, if guided by a respected and knowledgeable moderator. The Interrupters can play a big part here. They're incredibly adept at talking with youth about the violence while taking the moral component out of the conversation. We could imagine the Interrupters could lead conversations both on the ground and on the web. Additionally we think that it will be important to use existing youth media networks to reach effected communities. In Chicago and other major cities, these organizations are some of the most active and agile in encouraging young people to have a voice in addressing the violence in their neighborhoods.

Many of the most affecting stories in the film involve Interrupters mentoring a young person they've encountered, usually in the midst of trying to interrupt a dispute. These sequences could be turned into modules designed to stimulate group conversations among youth and between youth and adults in programs such as the Boys and Girls Clubs and through organizations like Facing History and Ourselves. In Chicago, we've had conversations with Free Spirit Media and with CHI826 (Dave Eggers' group) about bringing films, art and writings on violence to a larger public via curated programs, both in the affected communities and the city at large.

We've also consulted with a local game producer, ITVS interactive staff, and a youth media organization about the creation of a video game for teens. This "Interrupter game" could present kids in at-risk neighborhoods with various potentially violent situations. The goal of the game would be to teach teens an array of strategies to avoid violence while saving face or maintaining respect. The possibilities here are exciting, including interactive components that would allow kids to play out peacemaking scenarios in real time. According to game producers, recent advances in gaming technology (like youtube plug-ins) could allow users to engage in role-playing exercises that then become part of the game. Jeff McCarter of Free Spirit Media would love to involve his youth media organization in the conception and execution of such a game. It dovetails completely with the goals of their recent PSA campaign and he believes this game has enormous potential to reach the kids he works with every day in the tough Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale.

Finding partners to develop and implement the campaign

We're clearly just in the formative stages of developing this civic engagement plan. We are in discussions with a diverse range of possible partners and participants. Nationally, Active Voice is very interested in partnering with Kartemquin. In Chicago, Facing History -- along with the city's public library system and Steppenwolf Theatre -- is about to embark on a citywide program on urban violence, and they're excited about The Interrupters playing a role. Both the Northwestern Medical School and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health plan to partner with us in Chicago and Baltimore respectively. Northwestern, for instance, is looking for ways to engage the Chicago medical community around this issue, using the film as a centerpiece for discussion. The Chicago Youth Voices Network, an umbrella for all the youth media organizations in the city, is on board. They are confident that with their help we can engage similar organizations in other major cities. The city's Alternative Schools Network is keenly interested in using the film or modules in its classrooms. Obviously we're most familiar with Chicago, and so are looking to develop a kind of template here that we could use on a national scale.

In June we had an encouraging meeting with the Department of Education. Secretary Arne Duncan, a Chicago native, has long been profoundly concerned about school violence. We plan to explore ways in which the film can become part of their ramped up efforts to target the nation's 2000 most troubled schools. We also presented The Interrupters to an array of potential civic engagement partners. Representatives from organizations as diverse as the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, One Economy, Mobile Commons, National Human Services Assembly, and The Congressional Black Caucus all expressed great enthusiasm for the project.

So far, we've had substantive follow-up conversations with One Economy and Mobile Commons. One Economy is an international organization whose goal is maximizing the potential of technology to help low-income people improve their lives and enter the economic mainstream. They do so by helping bring broadband into the homes of low-income people. They also employ youth to train their community members how to use technology effectively. And significantly for The Interrupters, One Economy provides a platform for media that offer a wealth of information on education, jobs, health care and other vital issues such as urban violence. They plan to partner with actor-director Robert Townsend and The Public Internet Channel to get The Interrupters into affected urban communities using both the internet and community screenings hosted by celebrities who themselves have been directly affected by urban violence.

Mobile Commons pioneers easy-to-use mobile phone applications to launch marketing campaigns for a wide variety of clients, including public interest organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, the National Urban League and labor unions, as well as various companies such as Martha Stewart and Adidas. Mobile Commons has worked with films and social movements (most recently, immigration reform), and is especially excited about reaching underserved audiences with The Interrupters, drawing them to the film and engaging them in a wider conversation on violence.

And of course, CeaseFire itself is eager to explore with us ways in which they can utilize the film or modules. They have a growing presence nationally, with their methods being employed in other cities such as Baltimore, Kansas City, New York, New Orleans, and Phoenix, among others.

We're excited about this growing list of possibilities. This film, we hope will poke and prod people's preconceptions, and push people to think differently about the violence. Indeed, Kartemquin Films has a rich tradition of using films to mobilize communities, as tools for organizing campaigns and as vehicles for garnering media attention around a public issue. From large, multi-year national campaigns with partner Active Voice around The New Americans, to viral community-based strategies around recent films In the Family and Typeface, using documentary for civic engagement has been central to Kartemquin's mission since the beginning.

As filmmakers our strength, needless to say, is in telling stories and so we recognize the importance in partnering with others to ensure that The Interrupters has as wide and as profound measurable impact as possible. Violent death has become so much a part of the landscape in many communities that a local politician, the grandfather of a recent shooting victim, wearily told a local reporter, "These things will happen." We hope to create a campaign that serves as the antidote to such resignation.

The Interrupters
The thought of watching an almost two hour documentary seems rather boring, but that is the opposite emotion I received while watching “The Interrupters”. Every second was engaging, and every story brought emotion to my heart. It’s one thing to hear about gangs in communities, but actually seeing things they do is another. Gangs are not something anyone should be apart of, and it’s terrible to see how many adults and teenagers, just like myself, are devoting their lives to violence and horror.
The Interrupters tells the moving and surprising stories of three Violence Interrupters who try to protect their Chicago communities from the violence they were once apart of. Shot over the course of a year, The Interrupters captures a period in Chicago when it became a nation symbol for the violence in our cities. During this period, the city was overwhelmed with numerous shootings, fights and even deaths.  
There were three specific incidents in the documentary that stood out to me. Tio Hardimar, creator and director of the Violence Interrupters program, mentioned how when he was 14 years old, this boy beat him up; then his stepfather walked outside and killed that young boy right in front of Tio’s eyes. Tio stated, “I felt good about it, really.” Violence is the answer to every problem. That’s how all those kids were raised, and that’s all they knew. It is disturbing to see how violent these communities are, and how no one cares. Another incident that occurred was when Ameena Matthews, a Violence Interrupter, took Caprysha Anderson, an 18-year-old girl, out for a day and really learned her story. Caprysha had been in more than 15 homes, and basically raised herself and her sisters while her mom was out doing whatever it was that she did. While she was getting her nails done, the worker asked Caprysha where had all the violence got her; Caprysha responded, “No where”. Seeing how one person went from fighting every day to someone who realized violence...

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