With The Interuppters, director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and prodcuer Alex Kotlowitz were able to document the lives of three unconventional peacemakers working for CeaseFire, an organization in Chicago that aims to prevent gang violence. Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra were all involved in criminal activities—everything from drug dealing to murder—when they were younger, but now they use those experiences to help stop troubled gang members from making the same mistakes. The Interuppters is an uncompromising look at how living the life of a peacemaker can be both rewarding and a heavy burden. Boxoffice recently spoke to James and Kotlowitz about the film's many layers.
What was the process like in terms of the selection of stories you chose to include in the film?
Steve James: Alex did the article that inspired the film. He followed certain people in that article and there were at least one or two of those folks that he thought would be interesting to follow in the film, but it became clear very quickly for them that it was not going to work for them with the cameras and we understood that completely. So, what we did is, we identified Ameena early on as someone we wanted to follow because she was one of only two women interrupters and she has this sort of incredible history, between her father and her own personal history, and of course this incredible presence which made her an obvious choice. But with the other two that we began following it really became an organic process. We started filming in the meetings because we wanted people to be familiar with us, and comfortable with us, and we also wanted to have our finger on the pulse of what was going on week to week. Tio Hardiman, who created the interrupter program, would strongly encourage people around the table when we were there weekly to reach out to us for mediations and Cobe was one of the guys that really stepped up early on and started to call us and say, 'I've got situations that I think you might be able to film.' We filmed at least two other complete mediation stories with Cobe that didn't make it into the movie, that's how active he was and how skilled he was at getting us into those situations. Cobe really kind of emerged and he was this guy that we just felt like this guy is pretty amazing and we started to follow him. With Eddie, we knew we wanted to follow at least one Latino interrupter, we felt that was very important to the film, but with Eddie what was fascinating was that here was a guy that hadn't been out of prison long that was still very much grappling with what he had done—the ultimate act of violence. We were really fascinated with this personal journey that Eddie was going on while he was doing this job. And we were also fascinated with the way in which Eddie is this incredibly thoughtful guy who really thinks and questions not just what he's done in his life but also questions what he's doing now and is he being as effective as he can be. We really thought that was a tremendous quality about Eddie that brought something different to the film than either Cobe or Ameena.
As far as the actual mediation stories that you did film was that sort of the same process where it was more organic and some of these stories became more of a process with filming them than others?
Alex Kotlowitz: Right, I think very much so once we had decided that we were going to follow Ameena, Eddie and Cobe we just simply went out with them as much as we could, and one of the things we were really intent on was we were obviously hoping to be able to film mediations that we caught, but it was really important to us not only to film that moment but we tried to stay with the interrupters as they began to intervene in the lives of some of these individuals like Flamo, and Lil' Mikey and Caprysha. And really try to understand what brought these people to the moment in which they needed an interruption, and what lay ahead for them. How Ameena, Eddie and Cobe could intervene in their lives. And you could see for them it's sort of a rocky journey filled with complicated moments and also surprises.
What would you say was the most emotionally difficult story that you filmed?
Steve: For me I would say Caprysha because when we first met Caprysha it was serendipitous that we were there for that mediation where Ameena first meets her in that transitional home. And I just remember that moment when she turned to Caprysha at some point and saw immediately herself in this young woman. So, that began a relationship between the two of them that we were able to capture quite a bit of, and there was a point where Ameena took her to the nail salon, and to me it's one of my favorite moments in the film where she talks about you have the right to be happy, and angels make prayers in your tears and it's just this beautiful moment where she's reached this young woman. If this were the Hollywood version of the movie that would have been she's on her way now and everything would be a storybook ending. But it's not that way, and there were many ups and downs in the relationship and there are many ups and downs to this day in this relationship. It showed just how hard this work can be, and how hard it can be for anybody to overcome their past in the way that Ameena successfully did so and Caprysha is struggling to do so.
Alex: I think there's a moment for me that was just emotional being there and that was when Lil' Mikey decides to go and apologize to those who he had robbed at gunpoint in the barbershop. We went in there not knowing what to expect, and he certainly didn't know what to expect and you could sense his nervousness, his anxiety about going in there and then of course he's confronted by this woman, this mother of two children who were with her during the robbery, and doesn't let him off the hook. She gets to walk him through not only the robbery, but also to remind Lil' Mikey how she's had to live with this everyday. Then she finds it in her heart to somehow forgive him. For me it's just incredibly moving, and a surprising moment.
Steve: It's one of the most inspiring moments.
That was really an interesting moment for me to see, just that he had the strength to go there and talk to them and then to see how in the end they were able almost to forgive him.
Steve: It was brave on both their parts. I think that's what struck me. It was incredibly brave of him to do that, and of her to come and meet him and to be so honest about what happened and then to get up and give him a hug at the end, and sincerely wish him the best.
When you started out with this project did you plan on filming for a whole year?
Steve: We decided fairly early on that we wanted to do a year in the streets. That was going to be the framing device. We gleaned that that seemed like the right way to do this, so in a sense we thought that it might take a year of filming. But, it generally takes a lot longer to edit a film when you've shot over 300 hours like we did. In many respects though, for me this was fairly fast film because sometime you spend years filming for a project like this. So altogether it was about a two-year process to make the movie.
And I'd imagine with over 300 hours of filming, that was probably difficult to go through all that and to be able to cut as much as you needed to.
Steve: Yeah, but editing is one of the more exciting parts of the process because in our case I think we felt like we have this wealth of material and possibilities and so to sort through that and put it together in way that hopefully engages and tells the story.
Alex: And one of the things we did do, is while we were filming, about halfway through the filming, we did bring an editor on board, who was able to begin cutting scenes as we went along and that was really helpful so we could figure out what we had and what we needed.
So, going back to the interrupters, did they have difficulty separating their private lives and their work? Because it seemed like they were out there all the time, and Ameena was always passing out her business cards.
Alex: And Cobe is on the phone all the time.
Steve: I think it's always a struggle with anybody that works in a field that makes such tremendous demands on you, when so much is at stake. The challenge is always how do you leave the work behind at the evening and go home and get away from it. I think for each of them, well, especially for Cobe and Ameena, having families, Ameena's faith is a key way for her, with Cobe it's his family, and literally an escape to the suburbs. A very different world helped him. With Eddie I think it's more of a struggle because he's not married, he has no kids, he didn't have those kinds of diversions. And he's also in a different place. He's in a place where he's really trying to wrestle and define his life and how he was going to grapple with this ultimate act of violence.
Alex: And with Eddie in some ways, he talks about how he's afraid to slow, he's afraid to slow down because he's then going to have to really think about too much. He talks about how he has to keep busy all the time, and he does, he's busy all the time.
It was interesting to see the way Eddie talks about his past, and even the person that he murdered and how he refers to them as a victim, and it was interesting to see where he's at with that. You could tell he's still healing.
Alex: Right. You can sense how he's still grappling with it all.
Steve: Yeah. Neither Ameena nor Cobe committed such a serious crime in their past, but they both have profound regrets about things they did, clearly. And we learn about that and we learn about how they came through that. I think one of the things that's interesting in this film is we're actually watching Eddie go through it. We're not just hearing about how he came through it because he's still going through it.
I see all three of them building relationships with people, and especially Ameena with Caprysha. What's the follow-up process like? Are they able to maintain those relationships or does it get to a certain point where they have to stop and go back to other people or preventing other conflicts that are coming up on the streets?
Alex: It's interesting. Their job description is really just to go out and mediate disputes and I think given their connections and relationships to those in their community it's obviously difficult if not impossible to stop there. So, again you see that with Caprysha, Lil' Mikey and Flamo, and I think for each of them they'll do whatever it takes. They'll stay with people for months, sometimes even longer. There are obviously limits as to what they can do for people, but, it's difficult. As Steve mentioned earlier the stakes are so high, and they recognize that and they see some of themselves in each of the people that they're working with. So, it's one of the things that really inspired us about them, is that they went so far beyond what they're job description called for.
Steve: But I think you're right though, too, that at a certain point the hope is, and it's necessary because they can't keep having relationships like that with everybody that they try to help. It's just not possible. So, I think for them they do look to that time, where Cobe won't need to be checking in with Flamo consistently. And that time has arrived. He's there now. So, he talks to Flamo every once and while, but it's not like anything that he was doing when he was in the midst of all that. And, Lil' Mikey is well on his way. At the end of the film you see him being interviewed to work at CeaseFire and in fact he is now working as an outreach worker at CeaseFire and he's the youngest person they've ever hired. So, they do move on, but the hope is they move on feeling like they've gotten that person to that place where they need to be.
Yeah, it just seemed like they could almost get stretched too thin.
Steve: Absolutely. That's a constant worry.
Alex: Stretched too thin and burned out.
Were there failures throughout the film? People that they tried to work with, and for whatever reason it just wasn't going to happen or things that were troubling to them that they couldn't necessarily control?
Alex: Well, I think Ammena and Caprysha's story is a story that is still unfolding. It doesn't end up, at least in the film, in a happy place. Here she is in detention again, and she's about to get her high school diploma. So, you get a sense that these are stories that still need to unwind. I don't know if I would say that that's a happy ending. It's a troubling ending. You're left wondering how Ameena's still going to engage with Caprysha and pull her back.
Steve: But, you're absolutely right. They don't reach everybody. The stories that we tracked in the film were either successes or still a work in progress in the case of Ameena with Caprysha. We did film another story that didn't make it into the film, which was a terrific story about a kid who was living in an abandoned home who Cobe tried to reach and help. It looked like he was going to be successful in getting him out of the abandoned home, and he didn't ultimately succeed. Even in that story he is still very much involved with that kid. It's very much of a roller coaster, and there are times that you think he's going to turn a corner and then there are times when you think, nope, he hasn't turned a corner yet. We really wanted the film to be open-ended. We want you to have this sense that these lives are going on. We want you to look at Flamo standing inside that booth at the end where we kind of linger on him and wonder about his future and wonder if things will stick for him or not. Those are the things we wanted to leave you with.
Well, that was interesting because you go to that shot of Flamo, and I just looked at him and thought he looks kind of bored, I hope he doesn't get bored with this.
Alex: And you hope you're not around when he gets bored.
Steve: He absolutely could be. I think it's a shot that's rich, at least for me, in implications because on the one hand he's got a job, which is amazing. On the other hand, you have to look at the kind of job that it is, and wonder if this the kind of the job that will ultimately satisfy him enough to keep him on the straight and narrow. He also has this look in his eye as he looks at us and then looks off, where I think he feels some uncertainty about his own future. The good news is as we sit here today he still has that job, according to Cobe, and he seems to be doing well. So, that's really excellent news.
So are you still able to keep in touch pretty well with Ameena, Eddie and Cobe.
Alex: Oh yeah, very much so. They came to the festivals with us and they've been traveling with the film.
How do you feel that this documentary already has, or potentially could, contribute to CeaseFire's work?
Alex: We didn't want to make a film about CeaseFire per say, my magazine piece was very much about the program. Really, what we wanted to do was to make a film about these three interrupters, about their work and their personal journeys. Obviously CeaseFire is a part of that. Our hope is that this film will stir some conversation. I think it will knock people off balance and get people to question some their own assumptions that they have—especially people not living in these communities. The other part of it is this is a film that despite the bleak landscape, it has promise. Eddie, Ameena, and Cobe are amazing folks. They were inspiring to us and our hope is that they'll be inspiring to others. So, you hope that for people not living in these communities that otherwise would just turn away from them, that it will get them to sit up and ask questions that they hadn't asked before, to recognize the sense of humanity in these neighborhoods and these individuals, and for people in these communities you hope that they watch this film. We've already shown it to some, we just had gathering of about 80 young people from Chicago who watched the film and the response was really heartening. I think they really appreciate the frankness and the candor of the film, and really saw some of themselves in there. And so you hope that it gets people in these communities thinking a bit about it, and also recognizing that there is some promise there.
Steve: Yeah, and we went into the film thinking that this could be a fairly bleak and tragic story to be told, and there's certainly plenty of that in the film. But what we came out with was a real inspired feeling about the work that these interrupters do, and the possibility for people, the possibility for change, the possibility for redemption, the possibility of turning their life around. In fact in a way, we had this sort of epiphany at one point where we thought this film, one way to look at this is to see that people are capable of change, and the other way to look at it is to look at that Cobe, Ameena and Eddie and some of the folks they encounter along the way are just, with some help, finding a way to get back to who they really truly wanted to be in the first place. I think you see that most dramatically, perhaps, with a guy like Eddie who you meet him today and you think this guy would not be capable of committing murder, how is that possible? That's not the person who's standing in front of me today. That's a different person. And in some ways he's just found his way back to being who he has always wanted to be.