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The Interrupters

A new doc looks at one group working to halt youth violence in Chicago

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From documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams), working with author Alex Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here), comes this tough but affecting portrait of inner-city youth, and the work of one organization named Ceasefire that seeks to stem the endemic violence in the community.

The film jumps right in, for a fly-on-the-wall approach to one year, in which we follow the work of three Ceasefire "interrupters" -- two men and one woman -- working Chicago's mean streets. Their role is simple, if tricky: to defuse individuals and situations before violence erupts. Their weapon: talking, and from a place of street authority -- all the interrupters are local former street-players and criminals.

I could have used a little more background on how Ceasefire came to be, how it's funded, and what exactly these interrupters do during a typical workday. As it is, we see them attend a few meetings, but they're mostly depicted out in the community -- breaking up fights; calming passions at all-too-frequent funerals and memorial services; and counseling a few individuals, whom we also follow throughout the film. The film is a trifle long, and shaggy in spots, but I can understand the filmmakers' temptation to include so much footage that depicts the participants' admirable candor, rather than advance a narrative.

Much of the material presented in the film is dismaying: The violence is so pervasive, so much a part of living, that the perpetuation of it seems endless. One interviewee describes violence as a rampant epidemic, not unlike a communicable disease. 

Yet, the film also proves the exception. The Ceasefire counselors themselves stand as long-term success stories, but over the course of the year, the seemingly thankless grind of their work does yield some positive results. One young man, hoping to turn his life around after a stint in jail, has an unforgettable encounter with people he robbed. Doing the right thing isn't always easy, and this scene, however cathartic, is no Hallmark moment; it's raw and painful, and reveals as much about the damage done as it does about the hoped-for healing.

Still, it's hard not to find the material ultimately despairing. (Not least because urban poverty seems a forgotten issue these days, rarely covered.) Individuals can be rescued from the cycle of poverty and violence, but this is still the exception. And, to extend the aforementioned disease metaphor, that's just treating the lucky few infected who can see a doctor, while the myriad causes of the epidemic go unchecked and continue to spread. In English, and some Spanish, with subtitles. Starts Fri., Sept. 23. Harris.

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