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In New Film, Director of ‘Hoop Dreams’ Confronts Chicago’s Violence

Art Beat talked to Steve James and Ameena Matthews at the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham, N.C.

Updated: Feb. 14 2012 | The Interrupters will air on PBS’s Frontline tonight (check your local listings).
The new documentary, “The Interrupters,” by director Steve James follows three individuals who try to protect their Chicago communities from the kind of violence they themselves were once complicit in. These violence “interrupters” have the street cred of their own personal histories, which they now employ to intervene in conflicts before they explode into violence.

James, who also directed the acclaimed film “Hoop Dreams,” saw the impact of violence on Chicago families firsthand when two of his subjects from that documentary — relatives of the young basketball player Arthur Agee Jr. — were murdered.

Meanwhile, Alex Kotlowitz, a journalist and author of several nonfiction books about Chicago, including the bestselling ‘There Are No Children Here,’ had written a story about the experimental Cease Fire organization and its use of community mediators as interrupters. James teamed up with Kotlowitz as his co-producer to document what those interrupters encounter on a daily basis.

One of the interrupters featured in the film is Ameena Matthews, daughter of Jeff Fort, one of the city’s most notorious gang leaders, and former a drug ring enforcer.

“Our job is to get the guys before the police get them,” she said. “To get them to understand that, wherever that rage is taking you to, you’re going to be sitting in a penitentiary, you’re going to be where we were.”

In the volatile situations that the interrupters face, the notion of adding a camera and technical crew to the scene could have been a disruption for the real and serious work of stopping violence.

But the trust that developed between the filmmakers and the interrupters, as well as the trust between the interrupters and their communities, prevailed over the camera’s potential nuisance.

“Ultimately, [the people in the communities] trusted the interrupters and believed we were not there to vilify and judge, but to illuminate and understand,” said James. “That’s pretty much been my guiding principle as a filmmaker, and Alex’s as a writer. Nowhere was that more true then with this film.”

‘The Interrupters’ will air on PBS’s Frontline later this year. Here’s the trailer:

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