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Frontline: The Interrupters (Blu-ray Review)

5 Mar, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$24.99 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.

Working with an array of collaborators who surely deserve their share of the credit, documentarian Steve James continues to amass an impressive body of work on socially relevant subjects, just as Oscar winners Alex Gibney, Barbara Kopple and Charles Ferguson have in their own realms. Everyone knows James’ Hoop Dreams, of course, but nearly as impressive was 2002’s Stevie, one of the most poignant movies ever about a needful kid who fell through society’s cracks. Now comes a documentary basically photographed in a war zone: the toughest parts of Chicago.

The documentary, which recently made the short list of 15 but not the final five nominees for Oscar consideration, is superbly titled: “interrupting” is exactly what its protagonists try to do. As a subdivision of the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention — an organization begun by epidemiologist Dr. Gary Slutkin when he couldn’t believe what he was seeing in the urban Midwest upon returning from a series of world travels — the central initiative profiled here is called CeaseFire. As previously profiled in a New York Times Magazine article by Alex Kotlowitz (this film’s co-producer), its members attempt to interrupt street violence in the making, which often erupts when youngsters (and some on the older side of that age group) try to protect their own turf for often-shaky reasons. The sometimes fatal mayhem can be over a few dollars — or, even more trivially, in ways that practically echo the motivation in one of those old Z-Western saloon brawls where one person hits another with a bottle simply because he just doesn’t like the second person’s face. Case closed — or at least for five minutes until a member of the victim’s family responds.

To carry enough street clout to gain an ear (and, of course, to speak with conviction), these interrupters have come up through the ranks via their own sordid histories, which can include prison time or tough family ties or both. All three of the interview principals here (including a remarkably prolific former car thief) have compelling stories that get fleshed out some in a 49-minute bonus section — but Just as Spike Lee fell into a standout subject whose humor and attitude stood out among many in his magnificent Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke, James wisely expends a lot of his own footage on the remarkable wife and mother Ameena Matthews.

She is not particularly heavy on attitude but has quite a story: A onetime flashy club hopper during her teens, she is also the daughter of a local gangland legend who got into some fairly heavy-duty crime. Fairly soft-spoken and the short side physically, Matthews doesn’t seem at all reticent to tackle violence that is sometimes occurring right outside her window — and if the emotional ordeal is grinding her down, it’s not apparent on camera. In the bonus section, we even see her assist in selling (with mild strong-arm tactics) her daughter’s Girl Scout Cookies (thin mint and lemon).

These people are not cops, nor do they share their information with cops. They are more like mediators — though as one of those interviewed notes, anyone who does this kind of work will have plenty of “rubber meets the road” moments where the threat of violence is anything but abstract. It takes a special kind of person to take on this kind of work and a special kind of filmmaker. There are moments here when you have to believe James & Co. wished they were back on the basketball court filming those hoop dreams.

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