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Breaking the Cycle of Violence: An Interview With Documentarian Steve James

Producer Alex Kotlowitz and Producer/Director Steve James. (Courtesy of Kartemquin Films)

It might be shocking to learn that a US Department of Justice report that surveyed homicide statistics for almost thirty years concluded that most murders are intraracial, with 86 percent of White murders committed by Whites, and 94 percent of Black murders committed by Blacks. Wikipedia notes “the report doesn’t provide any details concerning what races or ethnicities are included in the designations “White” or “Black” but we don’t need those details to realize from those statistics that the heart of violence sits in our own communities, perpetrated by neighbors, family members, friends and acquaintance against each other.

If you live in a neighborhood with a high murder rate, this truth is tangible and palatable with the heart-wrenching site of memorials on almost every block. Memorials created from candles, teddy bears, photos and poetry that mourns and pays tribute to the dead. One could drown in violence statistics. They stack up endlessly and fill books but to what end? How can the tides of violence be changed when the causes and solutions are debated endlessly from the floors of congress to the minds of academia and still no single answer appears?

Read other interviews in the Truth and Documentary Filmmaking series by Amanda Lin Costa

The writer and political activist Mary McCarthy wrote, “In violence we forget who we are.” Violence destroys hearts, families and communities. Yet, McCarthy also wrote, “We are the hero of our own story” —- meaning: we can change the tides and we can shape the future. Maybe we can’t change the world but we may just be able to save a life and isn’t that something?!? This is the question Eddie Bocanegra, Ameena Matthews and Ricardo “Cobe” Williams ask themselves everyday as violence interrupters in Chicago’s CeaseFire program.

Violence interrupter Cobe Williams. (Courtesy of Kartemquin Films)

Filmmaker Steve James, best known for the award winning documentary “Hoop Dreams,” and Alex Kotlowitz author of the best-selling book “There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America” spent fourteen months on the streets of Chicago with CeaseFire’s violence interrupters to create a documentary that addresses topics much broader than just the violent microcosm we are entrenched in while watching The Interrupters.

The Interrupters

The film begins with an eye-opening statistic that sets the whole tone for the film —- more people died from violence in Chicago than American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan over the same period of time. Is Chicago unique?

From a Chicago shrine. (Courtesy of Kartemquin Films)

No it’s not unique. Chicago might not even be in the top ten most dangerous cities per capita in the United States right now but it has historically been very high. The murder rate is down considerably across the country (not that it’s low) since it reached its peak in the early nineties during the crack epidemic. There is a feeling in the communities featured in the film that the crime back then was between warring gangs and drug dealers and that it didn't effect everyday people. Now, there is a feeling that the crime is random and the kids feel more vulnerable. So even though there are half as many murders it doesn't feel any safer to them.

Is this the first project you’ve done in Chicago since you shot “Hoop Dreams” almost twenty years ago?

I executive produced a miniseries for Public Television called “The New Americans” that aired back in 2004 that followed immigrants over a period of time. The story I directed was about Nigerian refugees that came to Chicago. The Interrupters does feel like a bookend to “Hoop Dreams” because it is dealing in a different way with some of the same kinds of issues, especially the feeling of hope amongst hopelessness. I think this film is clearly a kindred spirit to that film just as it is a kindred spirit to Alex’s book, “There Are No Children Here”. He would tell you the same, that it feels like something of a bookend for him too.

I read that you were also drawn back to doing a project in Chicago after you learned about the deaths of some of the family members of people featured in “Hoop Dreams.” How did those losses affect you while you were working on this film?

I thought about that a lot when making this film because it was the closest I had come, and I have been spared such tragedies in my own family, to what I think people in these communities experience way too often which is someone you've come to know, if not related to, is killed. I remember how devastating it was when Curtis, William’s older brother was murdered and when Bo, Arthur's dad was murdered. Seeing what people go through in these communities certainly made me think of them.

One of the things we have a tendency to believe when we are not living in these communities, and I don’t obviously, is that because there is so much violence, so many murders and so many people been touched by it in some way, that somehow they are numb to the loss. That couldn't be, in my experience from this film, further from the truth. People aren't numb to the loss of loved ones. They may feel helpless and they feel it is not a surprise but they are far from numb. I think you see that time and time again in the film, the pain of loss.

Did doing “Hoop Dreams” give you street credibility that assisted you in doing this project?

It helped. It was particularly helpful with Cobe. He started doing it on his own, nobody said hey you should name drop Hoop Dreams. He just figured it out that it would help in certain situations to say, “Hey have you seen Hoop Dreams. This is the guy who did it.” One of the things it did was immediately help people to understand I wasn’t a cop. This wasn’t some sting. It did buy credibility in those situations. It was an easy way for Cobe to say, “These guys are OK, so don't worry about them.” It worked.

Alex Kotlowitz speaks of the waiting for true access for almost four months. Obviously the film wouldn’t be as strong without the footage of the violence interrupters out on the street and being involved in the community. Did you ever start to doubt if you would be privy to these inner moments?

I've been doing this for a while and every film is different about how you eventually get to that place of gaining trust and access. With this film, it was an interesting journey. First of all I don't normally shoot when I direct films. I normally work with a shooter and a sound person so there is just the three of us but because Alex was aboard, and it was even he who suggested it, we decided it would be smart perhaps for me to shoot as well as direct. This would allow us to still remain very small with just Alex, Zach Piper, and me who was co-producer and did all the sound work.

Being small makes a difference clearly in these situations and there were a lot of times when it was just Zach and me because it made the most sense for there just to be two of us there, me shooting and Zach doing sound. You have to get to a place with your main subjects where they understand fully what you are doing and why and trust you. We did get there. It took a little while with Ameena. We had to court her a little bit because she wasn’t so sure about what we were doing and but once she got it, she really got it and really embraced the film and us. You see in the film that she let us into a lot of really interesting situations.

The same with Cobe. Cobe was a guy that really just had a knack for getting people to go along with us being there. He played it off very casually. He said we were his film crew. With Eddie, it wasn't so much about the mediations because we met with a lot more resistance in the streets in the neighborhoods where he was working because the Latino gangs were much more concerned about us filming and so we had a lot less access but it was fine with us because I think what we saw in Eddie’s story was very personally of a guy who is still wrestling with what he did. That became a very important part of the story. Also, he is a guy trying to think outside of the box about mediating violence; not just mediate situations but reach people before they get to that point which is what the painting class was about.

You’re invisible in the movie. I often forget I was watching through the lens of a camera during these intimate discussion and explosions of violence. Did you ever worry about dropping yourself and the crew into this dangerous situation? A situation deemed violent enough that at one point there is talk of calling in the National Guard to control it?

I never really felt in any real danger. There were certainly some tense moments but for whatever reason, wisely or not, I never felt in personal danger. I think that was in part because Cobe, Ameena and Eddie were so responsible about which situations they thought were fine for us to be in and which were not. They just command so much respect among the people they deal with and the fact we were with them and had their endorsement, if you will, made a difference.

I also think it is true that, it might not always be true, but being white and being in these situations you are an outsider. The challenge for a filmmaker is to not become an insider that people think you are from there and have it all figured out but it is to communicate to people that you are there to learn and there are certain situations that I think being an outsider and being white in those neighborhoods does protect you to some degree because they clearly perceive you as such and their issue is not with you.

It doesn't mean people don't get angry at you and say stop filming because that does happen and that happened more in the tougher neighborhoods where people don't know why you are there or you or you are not with someone they know. If you are there in the right situation with the right people, it doesn't feel so dangerous. Maybe having the camera in front of my face helped —- gave me a false sense of security like I have this camera in front of my face and it was protection somehow. You have something you need to do like make sure people are in focus. I had something to occupy my mind, which is different than the questioning of “should I be here.”

(l-r) Cobe Williams, Eddie Bocanegra, and Tio Hardiman of CeaseFire Illinois. (Courtesy of Kartemquin Films)

How did you decide upon Ameena, Cobe and Eddie to be the interrupters to follow in the documentary?

With Ameena we pursued her from the get go because she was one of only two female interrupters and because of her charisma and effectiveness. Also, the fact she was Jeff Fort’s daughter. How could we not try and film her? Cobe emerged. We started out filming a lot around the table (the weekly meetings you see some of in the movie) to try and get people acclimated to us and to get our finger on the pulse. Every week Tio Hardiman, the creator of the violence interrupters, would tell everyone, “I really need some guys to step up and let these guys film some mediations” and Cobe was the guy that really stepped up initially. He started calling us and saying, “I got a situation with a couple guys in a parking lot. It’s pretty heated and I’m going to try and get them together and it’s OK if you come. Some guys won’t want their faces in and some guys will be OK.” So we would just show up and he delivered. Cobe did this repeatedly and it became clear this was a guy that could do this time and again and we just really grew to like him and became fascinated by him. With Eddie we knew we wanted to follow a Latino interrupter but what fascinated us about him is he had only just gotten out of prison a couple years earlier. He was new to CeaseFire and he was clearly still trying to come to terms with what he had done and that really fascinated us.

Truth be told, there is a ton of interesting guys at that table. We could have picked three others and had a different film but an equally effective film. It was a treasure trove of possibilities and I think what you do is let it evolve. You let it organically evolve to see where the story leads you and who it leads you to. We didn’t' suggest those three based on different interrupting styles but rather based on a variety of factors and that just ended up being something that was true of them that we were pleased about.

Ameena Matthews, violence interrupter. (Courtesy of Kartemquin Films)

It was fascinating to see how the interrupters approached the mediations differently. Cobe seems good at distancing but Ameena is very emotionally involved. Is one better or safer than the other?

That was one of the things that evolved that we were really please about —- Cobe, Ameena and Eddie had different styles. There was no textbook approach to doing it. Ameena, as you see in the film, can command a situation and literally get in someone’s face if that is what is called for; or she can sit on a park bench and stroke Capricia's hair and say, “You're too pretty to do this” and then if need be kick her ass as she does later in the movie. Somebody pointed out to us in an interview something that we hadn't really thought about which was a good observation. It is the fact that Ameena is a woman and this allows her more latitude with these guys in these situations to get in their face because they don't feel as threatened by her. They immediately put her in the category of a mother who is telling them what they need to do. I think that is really smart.

With Cobe, he's like everybody's best friend. He’s not somebody that gets in somebody’s face. He’s the guy that is like, “Wait, a second what are you doing now?” He's like your big brother. You're good big brother. He's effective in a very different way than Ameena. Eddie is the guy that is looking for different ways to reach people.

You call the interrupters heroes. Is there any irony in that since most are ex-convicts and violent offenders? Without meaning to or maybe you did, this is a huge statement on rehabilitation and the potential for all people to do good in society. On this point the film speaks directly to the question of whether or not people can change. Was this a theme that developed or is your own personal philosophy?

I think one of the things we were fascinated with about the interrupters was here are people who's job resume, if you will, qualifies them for this work but would exclude them for just about any other kind of real regular job. The fact that they are ex-convicts, the fact of the kinds of crimes they committed for this work they have the perfect background. It really is what is needed in order for them to completely understand the people they are going to be dealing with in the neighborhoods. It is part of who they are and the reputation they earned when they were on the streets. For the interrupters individually, of course this work is completely redemptive. It is a way for them to give back to communities that they mostly took from. It is a way for them to mediate violence in communities where they were part of the problem. That is something we were clearly taken with and we wanted to have come through in the film.

I have never been a filmmaker who has lectured in films. I have never been a filmmaker who has put experts in films. I am much more interested in plunging you into an environment and into people's life in a hopefully intimate way and let you experience and walk in their shoes vicariously and hopefully come to understand them. That has also been the strength of Alex's work as a writer. I think that is why it was a good collaboration. He had never been involved in a documentary like this before so for him to come in and be a part of it as a producer and creative collaborator was exciting for both of us.

I learned so much about what the world of gangs in Chicago watching this film yet the documentary isn’t really about that. Ameena spoke so eloquently on the problem being interpersonal conflict that escalates from zero to rage in thirty seconds. Could you speak on the idea of violence as a disease that stems as a result of an environmental?

Even though a number of the situations you see in this film where you see the interrupters intervening involved people in gangs, the reality is just because they are involved in gangs doesn't mean that is why a lot of these altercations are happening. A lot more of it is interpersonal related. In a lot of these African American gangs in the city a lot of the gangs have dissolved into block-by-block clicks. it has become very disconnected and a lot less hierarchical then it used to be, less than the Latino gangs still are. For instance, when Cobe intervenes with the family that has two brothers in different clicks. On the surface it looks like they are fighting because they are in different clicks. If they shot each other, the newspapers would have attributed it to them being in warring clicks but the reality is that is an interpersonal conflict and a family issue. What I love about Ameena’s thirty seconds of rage is it explains why something so seemingly petty as being bumped or someone making eyes at someone girlfriend can elicit so much rage. There are so many other factors in someone’s life that the least little thing pushes them over the edge and they commit acts of violence.

We are so used to the term “senseless violence” yet in the film it always seems like there was a justification given by the perpetrators —- it was war (referring to gang war) so I had to get gun or I had to feed my family, or because of family honor and pride or being disrespected but then Li'l Mikey has no recollection of the family he robbed at the barbershop and I found myself circling back to the idea of it all being senseless again. Where does that disconnect lie between justification and yet no recollection of the victim?

What I think is particularly striking about the thing with Li'l Mikey is that woman will never forget what happened in that barbershop. It was a moment for her and her family that has been etched into her mind as if it happened yesterday and she basically tells him that. In the car after talking to Cobe, the fact that Li'l Mikey couldn't remember wasn't because it was insignificant at all, in fact for him, he'll never forget he robbed that barbershop because it had such a profound impact on his life. Not only did it send him to prison, but the whole time he was in prison what he wanted to do more than anything was when he got out was to go back and apologize.

I think what is going on with such traumatic events in anyone lives is this weird kind of amnesia almost like a post-traumatic distress sets in. It's not in the film, but Eddie talks about how people will come up to him and say, “Remember when we were doing this at that party?” and talk about some not really good thing at all that he did and he doesn't remember. It is like he put it out of his mind because to really think of what he did is really painful and to realize how awful your behavior was is too painful. Of course with Eddie, that act of murder he committed he remembers to this day and never lets himself forget but even with him, when he takes us back to the site of the murder he says the faces are fuzzy. He can't actual recall what the face of the guy looks like that he actually killed. It is a very interesting psychological phenomenon.

I read an interview where you spoke about how you cried behind the camera during that barbershop scene with Li’l Mikey. I can image during fourteen months shooting this world there were many times you were brought to tears. Can you speak about this?

Absolutely, I think Alex, Zach and myself all often experienced a range of emotions doing the film from wanting to cry over the tragedy of it all to being moved by the interrupters and the work they do and the strides people make in the film like Li’L Mikey. Each of the interrupters also has a terrific sense of humor. You may not see it as much let say with Eddie but he has a great sense of humor. Clearly Cobe and Ameena do. I think you see that in the film. They were people who inspired us and also were a lot of fun to be with so that helped to mitigate some of the tragedy of what the film is about.

What ever became of the call for the National Guard to go to Chicago?

That got shut down. I don't know how sincere that state representative was or if he was just looking to create some waves for whatever reason to get people talking. You make that kind of claim and the whole thing becomes a big story, a national story just like death of Derrion Albert and of course it got debated in the media for a couple days and then it just went away. I don't think anyone really wants the National Guard on the streets in Chicago, certainly not the people from those neighborhoods and I think one gets that pretty quickly from the town hall meeting.

Did the Derrion Albert killing happened while you were filming?

We weren't at the school but it happened a few months into our filming.

I have to speak of a few moments that really blew me away. One is the footage of the wall with all the names of the dead written on bricks and the one brick with the words “I am next” written on it. It really speaks to the pervasive feeling one gets watching the film that the youth don’t have much faith in living past thirty. There were cultural things that I also just didn’t understand such as the Hennessey bottles left at the memorials or the kids taking cell phone photos of the deceased at the funeral home wakes. Can you speak a little to that idea of tributes and memorials in the community? You have a very strong montage of them earlier on in the film.

Hennessey is a very popular drink in those communities among young people. I think leaving the bottles is in a way toasting the good times together. Like at a funeral where one raises a glass to the departed or as an acknowledgement to someone you are close to someone, you partied with. The taking of pictures with the cell phone is a pretty common thing among young people. It is complicated. It is a last shout out to remember someone by even in death. In the film, you see one guy lean down, next to one of his running buddies and someone takes a picture of him next to the deceased, almost laying next to him in the coffin. I think these are all ways people are trying to grapple with trying to pay tribute to and not forget the fallen. I think that is what is at the heart of it.

I had to constantly remind myself watching the film that kids are not supposed to be attending funerals for their twelve and fifteen year old friends. The signing of the posters and walls at the memorials also reminds me of the signing of yearbooks. Do you think in a way it was the youth developing their own way to mourn in this environment?

I think there is truth to that but if you spend time there you see it isn't just young people. Older people write as well. If you read what is written it is interesting and poignant. It remembers the good times and says you will never be forgotten. The one kid in the montage is saying in his note on the yellow paper, “I hope you see my mom in heaven, if you do please tell her I said high” and it is spelled “h-i-g-h”. I think it’s people just trying to find a voice to articulate what they are trying to say whether it is leaving a teddy bear as a remembrance of childhood or pictures, flowers or writing on the walls or poster. It really is a communal response to loss. I think it is quite effecting and that is why we created this whole montage sequence around it. We thought it was a way to get you, if you are an outsider like us, to grasp the depth of feeling over the loss.

I thought the comment one man made about there being a black president in the white house (from Chicago, no less) and yet young black boys are still dying everyday to be particularly poignant. Was that any factor in rushing to get the film edited so quickly, our political situation? Or was there another motivation?

I never like to get a film out before it’s done but the big motivator was actually Sundance. They saw a very long rough cut and asked if we could make the festival. We just had to get it done and I’m glad we did. I think it was a great way for this film to go out in the world. It set up a lot that followed in terms of other festivals and ultimately in terms of getting the theatrical release. Normally, I would take a year to edit a film like this. Since Sundance, we have been able to whittle away at it and do what we would originally have done to the point where the film is now, where it would have ultimately been if we had more time before Sundance. The first cut was two hours and forty-five minutes and that is what played at Sundance. Then we cut it down for the rest of the festivals and took about twenty minutes out. Now we have cut another twenty minutes out and that was mainly just focusing and tightening and now it plays better. It still has the same sort of epic feel to it. Hoop Dreams was exceedingly long for its time. We feel right now this is the best version of this film because it will play better for audiences but it is still by documentary standards a long film.

Is there any opposition to the CeaseFire program? Did you feel any burden to question or be “even-handed” regarding that?

Certainly there are a lot of organizations trying to tackle the problem of violence in Chicago and they don't all get along and part of that is philosophy and part of that is resources are stretched so thin that people are scrambling for the same dollars. Alex and I decided really early on we didn’t want to make a film about CeaseFire as an organization but rather on aspect of CeaseFire that we thought was really fascinating and highly effective which was the interrupters and the violence interruption program created by Tio Hardimen. We wanted to focus on the issue of violence in these communities and what these interrupters are trying to do about it. We felt that was the story that needed to be discussed not whether this organization or that organization liked CeaseFire or not, that wasn't important to the story we wanted to tell.

Is it true that the film has an outreach program that is being created out of it? Can you talk about that and the film’s future?

We will do outreach in some fashion and we are trying to get going in a large enough way to be truly effective. There has been such a out pouring of interest in the film either from the festival circuit where people saw it or just from reading about it. Every day we get two or three requests from various organizations and schools around the country asking, “When will this film come here?” and “How can I get it?” Hopefully as the film rolls out theatrically we will be able to help people plan community screenings beyond just playing in theaters.

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