By Chelsea Haith
Ameena Matthews grew up on the desperate streets of Chicago in the 1980s as the daughter of the El Rukn gang-leader, Jeff Fort. Working as a gang-enforcer in her teens and early adulthood, hustling, doing and dealing drugs, Matthews was on the fast track to incarceration. Then she got shot. These days she’s a mother of four, the wife of an imam and a Senior Violence Interrupter.
As a member of CeaseFire, the activist section of the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention, Matthews’ job is to quite literally put herself in the line of fire. A Violence Interrupter’s task is to talk young men and women out of their desire for revenge on rival gangs for the deaths or beatings of loved ones. The interrupters are trying to break that cycle of violence, which they see as an issue of public health, particularly amongst, but not limited to, young men.
Violence is pervasive as a performance of masculinity in gang warfare. Breaking down this method of self-assertion is the biggest challenge faced by the group of pacifist ‘Violence Interrupters’ in Chicago, as they battle against weekly or daily killings, stabbings, beatings and drug and alcohol-fuelled domestic abuse and self-destruction. This is the origin story of the Independent Spirit Awards and Emmy Award winning documentary, The Interrupters.
In May 2008 the New York Times published an article by Alex Kotlowitz titled ‘Blocking the Transmission of Violence’. Documentary-filmmaker Steve James, who is associated with the Chicago-based film company Kartemquin, got on board with the project and the result is the 2011 documentary The Interrupters. The characters featured most prominently are former gang members and convicted felons, Ameena Matthews, Tio Hardiman and Cobe Williams. Other interrupters include convicted murderers, and, as one member of the project jokes in a meeting documented in the film, “There are more than 500 years’ worth of jail time in this room. That’s a lot of collected wisdom.”
It is a story told from the perspective of real people who made real mistakes, instead of the story of one white man who tried to save communities of black and Latino youths from committing the sins of their fathers. What a relief.
The candid and honest stories of the interrupters are at the heart of the documentary and it is their tales that are the most engrossing, despite the importance of their work with the communities. The documentary suffers only for its lack of historical context and there is a focus on the present-day that perhaps erroneously ignores the political and social history of race relations and segregation in Chicago, as well as America’s trigger-happy gun laws.
From long-form journalism to an award-winning documentary, James and Kotlowitz worked together to tell the story of a few communities plagued by violence from the inside, laying bare the truth of a people abandoned and reduced to a series of racist, reductionist narratives by media programming geared towards white, upper-middle-class America (here’s looking at you, Fox News). The documentary appears to have no agenda except to tell the interrupters’ stories, which is a refreshing deviation from the usual portrayal and racial profiling of gang violence in the States.
This two-hour long narrative shifts between moments of intense emotional honesty and brutal violence as it tracks the lives of three interrupters over the course of a year, from 2009-2010. The filmmakers take the viewer to Chicago’s most desperate streets and follow the interrupters in their personal stories of redemption as well as their outreach work as they attempt to touch the minds of ‘at-risk’ youth.
The documentary only very briefly features the epidemiologist Gary Slutkin who founded the initiative on the premise that violence is a disease. Instead, it allows the viewer more time with the interrupters, whose task it is to block the transmission of the disease of violence, much like how limiting contact with infected matter slows the spread of cholera.
This is not a new idea in the field of medical psychology but the CeaseFire project is a more effective treatment of the disease. Given that punishment in the form of the jail system is “highly over-valued and is not a driver of behaviour nor a driver of behavioural change,” as Slutkin said in his TedTalk in 2013, prevention is key to stopping gang violence, as is suggested in the documentary.
The Interrupters has a heart of slightly tarnished gold that winks at you beneath the hard times in the personal interviews and efforts of reconciliation. Searing and honest, The Interrupters is an important documentary and particularly relevant to societies dominated by violence and a reductionist media landscape. South Africa, for example.