FILM: Former Criminals Turn to Preventing Crime

  • by Christian Papesch (united nations)
  • Wednesday, September 28, 2011
  • Inter Press Service
The filmmakers with real-life interrupters after a screening of "The Interrupters" in New York. - Christian Papesch/IPS
The filmmakers with real-life interrupters after a screening of "The Interrupters" in New York. - Christian Papesch/IPS

Nevertheless, the total number of murders committed in Chicago has significantly decreased over the past 15 years, One reason for this decline and especially for the constant annual cutback between 2001 and 2010 was the public safety and health initiative CeaseFire.

In their documentary 'The Interrupters', American filmmaker Steve James and journalist Alex Kotlowitz follow three of CeaseFire's street workers: Ameena Matthews, daughter of a Chicago gang leader; former criminal and gang member Cobe Williams; and Eddie Bocanegra, convicted of murder at age 17.

By hiring local workers familiar with the situation and people of Chicago's most violent neighbourhoods, the organisation caused shootings and killings in specific zones to drop by 73 percent.

'Their efforts were groundbreaking,' states the U.S. Department of Justice Study on the Effectiveness of CeaseFire Chicago. 'In every program area there was a substantial decline in the median density of shootings following the introduction of CeaseFire.'

'We wanted to do a film that was not so much about CeaseFire, but that was really about that violence and about the communities,' explains producer Kotlowitz, who got involved with the project because of an article he wrote for the New York Times.

'And I hope that the film does that. It obviously talks about what CeaseFire does; but it also talks about these larger social and political issues that really have an impact on the people and the community,' he told IPS.

'The Interrupters' follows Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra for one year on their work in the streets of West Garfield Park, Little Village and Englewood, which, according to the FBI crime report, are some of the most violent areas in the nation.

James and Kotlowitz film as observers, stepping back from the situations they document and documenting without interrupting. In fact, the only persons to interact with community members are the interrupters themselves.

For that very reason, the movie does not have a voiceover or narrator. The only statements viewers hear are those of the protagonists themselves.

'I think the change that film does is to encourage people to give voice to things they might not otherwise say,' states Kotlowitz, who has won festival awards for documentaries including 'Hoop Dreams' and 'Stevie'. 'But I think most of those people forget about you. There are many things that are much more important to them that they focus on.'

Most of the people portrayed in the film focus on their daily routine of violence, crime, threats and fears of rival gangs whose main goal is to hurt members of other gangs to avenge previous injuries - a vicious circle that has cost the lives of hundreds of young people over the past decades.

'I was part of the problem,' recalls Williams, who was in and out of prison until he became one of the violence interrupters shown in the movie. He told IPS, 'When I was out there, I had to live that life. Seeing people killing each other, slaying each other, every day. I had to do something about it.'

Most of the interrupters share a background similar to Williams's. They grew up in the neighbourhoods they now work in; they know the people and the issues they are dealing with.

'There is common ground,' explains Bocanegra, who spent 14 years in prison for murdering a boy when he was 17. 'We are able to truly empathize with them because we have been there. We understand the dynamics of the community, the dynamics of their family. That's what allows us to operate in that area,' he says in an interview with IPS.

Matthews is one of only two female violence interrupters in the CeaseFire project. As a former drug ring enforcer and daughter of Jeff Fort, one of the city's most notorious gang leaders, she got to know the life of a criminal from her childhood on. 'My mother was on drugs her whole life, my father went to jail when I was 10,' says Matthews. 'We all come from broken homes.'

This courageous woman has been working as a violence interrupter for almost 2 years now and has already stopped more than 500 conflicts. While her former principle was 'If somebody hits you, you better hit him back,' she now acts upon the motto, 'You never should give up on (anybody).'

Two of the reasons she changed her life were the birth of her children and her Muslim faith. Another reason was Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old high school student whose murder was filmed and published on Youtube, after whose death Matthews decided she had to act.

Although she claims she has never been scared during her work, she knew that she would put herself in danger. 'When I got hired, I did not tell my husband what job that was,' the violence interrupter recalls. 'But he immediately accepted what I was doing. This is so phenomenal for me.'

Yet Bocanegra felt jeopardised and afraid during his work 'plenty of times', he admits. 'When we filmed, there were scenarios when people said, 'You (have got to) go right now. You are okay, Eddie, but things here are getting pretty bad.' So we leave — and sometimes somebody gets killed.'

The film communicates this atmosphere of threat and danger, but also shows moments of hope and change, such as when a gang member tells Williams that he has also prevented a fight earlier that day.

'Some people reject us, but we don't give up on them,' says Williams. 'We (aren't) judging them, we meet them where they're at. We create a relationship. They are like family for us.'

'The Interrupters' is a sensitive documentary that does not interrupt the actual events it portrays. When others might do a voiceover, it listens; it watches when others would interfere or run away.

Like films in general, it can only be seen as a version of reality, filmed from a certain perspective to show a certain perspective. But it does that without judging, without exaggerating and without stereotyping. It shows life in some of Chicago's infamous neighbourhoods the way they are: cruel but not miserable, and tragic but not hopeless.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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