Last Monday night was what the Robert Burns Cinema’s Film Club is all about, the chance to sample a film we would not otherwise have the opportunity of seeing. Thanks to David Barker, one of the RBCs Young Programmers, a very focused audience watched Steve James’s very poignant documentary The Interrupters (2011).
The documentary took 14 months to film and ended up with 300 hours of film to edit, it follows three of the Violence Interrupters and because I think these people’s biography’s are so interesting I offer no apologies for using those provided in the press notes which I believe go a long way to explain the success of the initiative:
Eddie Bocanegra, who’s 34, has been a violence interrupter for the past two years. He spent 14 years in prison for a murder he committed when he was 17. He’s presently working towards his social work degree at Northeastern University. In addition to his work with CeaseFire, Eddie has started a therapeutic support group for mothers who have lost children to violence and teaches art in the schools and in summer programs run by Enlace Chicago, a community organization in Little Village, the neighborhood where he grew up.
Ameena Matthews has been with CeaseFire for three-and-a-half years as a Senior Violence Interrupter. The mother of four children – two who are grown up and two who are ages 12 and 9 – she is married to Abdur Rasheed Matthews, who is the Iman at the Al Haqqani Mosque & Community Center. Ameena, who grew up in Englewood on the city’s South Side, is the daughter of Jeff Fort, one of the city’s most infamous gang leaders. In the 1960s, the El Rukns, which were under Fort’s leadership, were seen by some as a catalyst for positive growth in their neighborhoods. Fort is now serving time in prison for drug trafficking and terrorism charges; he was alleged to have conspired to commit terrorist acts on behalf of Libya in exchange for money. Ameena credits her family and her early life experiences for her desire to educate and effect change in the neighborhoods that she calls home.
Ricardo “Cobe” Williams, who’s 38, has been working at CeaseFire for four years. Cobe, who like Ameena grew up in Englewood, his father was murdered when he was 11. Between 1993 and 2004, Cobe spent three stints in prison, for drug related charges and for attempted murder. When CeaseFire lost funding in 2007, Cobe continued to work at his job without pay until his position was restored seven months later. Cobe, who’s married to Andrea Williams, has four children; they range in age from 10 to 15. They live in Yorkville, a far west suburb. Cobe, who’s about to earn his High School equivalency, was this past December promoted to a new position. He now works as a national trainer at CeaseFire.
The concept for the documentary began life in 2008 as an 8000 word New York Times feature by Alex Kotlowitz, who shares a production credit with Steve James; called ‘Blocking the Transmission of Violence’ it examined attempts to find credible solutions to Chicago’s relentless toll of shootings. One of the people it featured was Gary Slutkin who was convinced that the techniques he utilised to prevent disease in Somalia and Uganda could be used to prevent street violence in his home town because of having similar symptoms to an epidemic and like Aids and cholera he believed that encouraging behavioural changes could help greatly with this major cause of death for young people in certain parts of the city where an average of five people were shot each day in 2009! Slutkin founded the community-level campaigning organisation CeaseFire in 2000. It is focused on one thing: preventing shootings. It tries to deal direct with street confrontations to prevent violence, it doesn’t aim to get people out of gangs or interrupt the drug trade. In March 2004 ex drug addict and street hustler Tio Hardiman created and piloted the introduction of the Violence Interrupters. The theory was that because of their unique standing within their own community the Interrupters would get far more respect than other authority figures.
Not exactly an entertaining couple of hours but very honest and unbiased, giving us an interesting and informative insight into a problem that is affecting our own streets with more and more youngsters involved in stabbings. It bought to mind the HBO’s TV series The Wire, particularly the fourth series and should be more widely distributed and maybe even shown to teenagers in UK schools. I think I can speak for the Film Club when I say that this showing was very much appreciated and again I would like to thank David for bringing it to our attention.