There is a handful of directors who immediately come to mind when you’re thinking of the great documentary makers working today: Alex Gibney, Errol Morris and Charles Ferguson are at the top of the list. So is Steve James.
James may always be best known for his 1994 masterpiece Hoop Dreams, a film that Roger Ebert named the best film of the ‘90s. But he’s been steadily turning out quality films since then, including 2008’s At the Death House Door and No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, his contribution to ESPN’s 30 for 30 series.
His new film is called The Interrupters, which finds James back in Chicago, the setting for Hoop Dreams. This time, James focuses on Chicago’s rampant problem with violence and a group known as the Interrupters. These former gang members work for an organization called CeaseFire and head out into the streets to squash potentially violent dustups when tempers flare.
For a year, James follows three Interrupters: Ameena, a daughter of one of the city’s most notorious gang leaders; Cobe, a former thug who steps into some of the most heated situations; and Eddie, a convicted murderer who lives each day trying to right the wrongs of his past.
James is in town today to receive the Star Award from the Dallas Film Society. The Interrupters screens today at 4 p.m. at the Texas Theatre and Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at Highland Park Village, where James will take part in a Q&A with Dallas Morning News Movie Critic Chris Vognar.
Ahead of his trip to Dallas, James spoke with Art&Seek by phone about The Interrupters.
Art&Seek: Some people in the film make the case that violence is like a disease, and that diseases often aren’t controlled through medication but by behavior changes. Do you feel like that is an argument the film furthers?
Steve James: Part of what I think is appealing about this approach is that it’s trying to not treat violence as something that people are born to do in a given neighborhood. To try and strip some of the moral and ethical judgment out of the situation and treat it more as something that is a product of the environment. And if you can find a way to change behaviors, you can make an impact. Much like when [CeaseFire founder]Gary Slutkin was in Africa working on AIDS. There are medications for AIDS, but if you can figure out a way to change behaviors so people don’t have multiple sex partners and unprotected sex, it can have a greater impact than trying to treat it in purely medical terms.
A&S: It also seems important to change the mindset of people who feel that they are just predetermined for an early death.
S.J.: I think what’s happened in some of these communities is that people have come to expect that a violent death is something that will happen to them and if it does, it’s not unusual. … One of the things that I think the film makes clear is that when people are in violent situations, a big part of it is just getting them out of the situation or getting them past that moment of 30 seconds of rage … to where they can kind of think about what didn’t happen. Because 30 seconds can change somebody’s life – it can end somebody’s life or it can put somebody in prison for the rest of their lives.
A&S: You follow several people’s stories over the course of a year – how were you able to be seemingly everywhere at once and how did you stay informed when something important might be about to happen?
S.J.: We would regularly attend the weekly [CeaseFire] meetings and be around the table, because that was a great way to be privy to what’s unfolding in any given week and to remind everybody that we’re here and available and call us! There were of course many, many interruptions that we weren’t privy to and didn’t capture. We expected that it would be difficult to get many of them, and we didn’t really need many of them. We knew that if we could get a few revealing ones and significant ones, that that would work for the film, because the film isn’t a reality show – it’s not just one mediation after another to titillate viewers with the drama of what’s going on. The film is attempting to dig deeper into an understanding of what the cause and affects of violence is and as important, strategies to move people past that.
A&S: Were you ever worried about your safety while filming?
S.J.: You know, I never really felt in any real danger. I think that was because Cobe, Ameena and Eddie are so well-respected and so responsible that they didn’t put us in situations where it felt particularly dicey. … There was a situation with Eddie where, after we had filmed a little while in this one neighborhood, the gang leader of that part of Chicago met with Eddie and said he didn’t want us over there anymore. And even though Eddie tried to reason with him and explain that what we were doing was positive and good and we weren’t connected with the police or any of that, he wasn’t persuaded. He just said, “I don’t want them over there filming anymore.” And so we respected that.
A&S: What’s it like to set out to tell a story that doesn’t really have an ending?
S.J.: Right, and we’re not really following one or two people’s stories in a very narrative sense. The structure of this movie is more episodic. It really has more in common with dramatic television in that we juggle several different stories and come back to them and we see them progress. But there’s no overarching narrative. That was one of the challenges with this film and one of the reasons where we structured it so that it was a year on the streets of Chicago and our guides are the Interrupters. But I think that it’s also more true in a way. We’re not trying to trump up some particular narrative structure that’s not authentic to what we witnessed.
A&S: Have you thought yet about what the subject of your next film will be?
S.J.: No, I haven’t. I have things I’m thinking about, but it’d be premature to talk about them. This thing has swallowed me up for a while so I’m still in the throws of it. We’re attempting to mount a significant outreach and engagement campaign around the film because there’s a tremendous amount of interest around the film from a whole host of community organizations and colleges and social services agencies. This is an issue a lot of people care about and are trying to tackle from various vantage points. And so we really are trying to mount a significant campaign in that regard so that people in communities that are really beset with this violence can have a chance to see this film and hopefully have it play some kind of positive role in work that’s done there. So there’s a lot to do yet.