The Interrupters: Sundance Review

Courtesy of Kartemquin Films
Affecting doc about efforts to quash Chicago violence would benefit from a shorter running time or a longer-form TV presentation.

Steve James' arresting documentary could benefit even more from a multi-part television treatment.

PARK CITY — Sundance Film Festival, Documentary Premieres — An eye-opening account of efforts to end an epidemic of violence in Chicago, The Interrupters alternates between shocking glimpses of how bad things have gotten there and a surprisingly convincing optimism about new methods of addressing the problem. Fresh and urgent, it holds a strong appeal for viewers, though it's unclear exactly what the doc's venue should be.

The film centers on the CeaseFire program, which springs from the idea that violence is less a moral issue than a disease -- one that can be reversed by dismantling flawed reasoning processes that assume all grievances demand physical retribution.

Viewers inclined to dismiss that lofty premise will reconsider when they meet the CeaseFire staff, an astounding array of crime lords and gangbangers who have renounced their former ways. As one member notes at a meeting, "We got over 500 years of prison time at this table" -- and that experience brings with it a whole lot of credibility on the streets, where these "violence interrupters" try to redirect conflicts wherever they see them.

It is astonishing how effective these men -- and the few women with the experience required to work with them -- can be. We see as they confront both hotheaded individuals and tense mobs, speaking to each audience in a language few social workers could pull off. The extent to which they manage to defuse things would simply not be believable in a fiction film.

Director Steve James and editor Aaron Wickenden, working with journalist Alex Kotlowitz (who wrote a New York Times Magazine story on CeaseFire and produced Interrupters with James) devote some screen time with the directors of this program, but are most interested in three particular interrupters -- digging into their criminal histories and examining their individual styles of mediation.

Each is a fascinating person -- especially fiery Ameena Matthews, the daughter of a major criminal who was herself a gang lieutenant before embracing Islam -- and the movie's individual sequences are well crafted. But the film offers a level of detail that, while never boring, isn't justified in the context of theatrical distribution. This isn't a multi-year unfolding narrative like James' Hoop Dreams, and it would be easy to trim an hour from this 164-minute cut without leaving a theatrical audience feeling cheated.

Alternatively, the subject is rich enough to sustain a multi-part television presentation that would allow James and Wickenden to weave even more on-the-street footage into the stories of these gutsy campaigners. Given what they show us here -- like the breathtaking scene in which a teen returns to the scene of one of his crimes, offering a sincere apology and stoically accepting the heartwrenching response -- one imagines they left plenty of good material in the cutting room.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Documentary Premieres
Production companies: Kartemquin Films, Rise Films
Director-director of photography: Steve James
Producers: Alex Kotlowitz, Steve James
Executive producers: Justine Nagan, Gordon Quinn, Teddy Leifer, Paul Taylor, Sally Jo Fifer, David Fanning, Mike Sullivan
Music: Joshua Abrams
Editor: Aaron Wickenden, Steve James
Sales: Teddy Liefer, Rise
No rating, 164 minutes