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Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz discuss ‘The Interrupters’

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on August 11, 2011.

Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz live just a few blocks from each other in Oak Park. Both have been acclaimed for their heartfelt, thoughtful portrayals of people coping with problems such as poverty and crime. James portrays his subjects in documentary films including “Hoop Dreams.” Kotlowitz portrays his subjects in books including “There Are No Children Here.”

“We’re kindred spirits,” James says. But until now, these neighbors have never worked together.

Their first collaboration is a stunning and stirring film about “The Interrupters” — former gang members who try to talk current gang members out of committing acts of violent revenge on Chicago’s streets. After months of buzz and ovations at film festivals, the documentary opens Friday, Aug. 12, at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

“I hope it gets people thinking about the violence, in a way they hadn’t before,” Kotlowitz says. “And I hope it spurs some conversation about the profound and deep poverty in our cities.”

“The Interrupters” should accomplish those goals, but it doesn’t do it with voice-over narration or any direct message.

“The film has a lot to inform you about, but we also want it to be entertaining and shocking and funny,” James said. “What we’re trying to do is present this complicated reality and have you grapple with it. You give the viewer credit for intelligence — to look at it and draw their own conclusions.”

James and Kotlowitz spent 14 months tagging along with the CeaseFire organization’s violence interrupters, focusing on three charismatic figures who have overcome troubled pasts to do good: Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra. As the film shows them giving gang members streetwise advice and straight talk, it doesn’t seem like any film crew is present.

In fact, two or three people were hovering nearby: James was running the camera, acting as cinematographer, as well as director, producer and editor. Kotlowitz was observing and taking the lead during interviews, serving as producer. And co-producer Zak Piper was handling the microphone. “The Interrupters” is billed as a “film by” James and Kotlowitz. Normally, that credit goes to the director alone, but James said he wanted to emphasis just how much of a role Kotlowitz played.

“He was in the trenches with us throughout the entire process,” James says.

The film was inspired by a 2008 article Kotlowitz wrote for The New York Times Magazine about CeaseFire’s efforts to stem Chicago’s tide of murders.

“We already had a significant level of trust because of the groundwork that he had laid,” James says.

“The key to this kind of storytelling is building relationships with the people whose stories you’re trying to tell,” Kotlowitz says. “Part of that is being absolutely frank and straightforward with them about what you’re doing. And part of it is being patient.”

The film’s subject matter sounds grim. Kotlowitz says he and James braced themselves for a grueling year.

“But I’ve got to tell you, I’ve never had so much fun working on anything before,” he says. “Hanging out with Ameena, Eddie and Cobe, I think we were surprised how much we were inspired by them. The film is, if not uplifting, at least filled with promise and filled with humor, amidst all the grief that you see.”

“The Interrupters” will open at ICE Theaters on Chicago’s South Side after its two-week run at the Siskel. James said he hopes it will be seen by people who rarely venture into violence-stricken neighborhoods, as well as people who live there.

Kotlowitz says, “What could be more affirming or make you feel less alone than to know that other people are grappling with the same issues?”

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