By Eric Kohn | Indiewire July 29, 2011 at 4:43AM
When Steven James first premiered "The Interrupters," his compelling look at activists working to prevent Chicago street violence, the initial reaction at the Sundance Film Festival was uniformly positive. The indomitable buzz machine reported that the "Hoop Dreams" co-director had made another galvanizing portrait of inner city struggles, this one based on a New York Times Magazine article by Alex Kotlowitz. Following the travails of CeaseFire Interrupters, a group predominantly composed of former gang members talking sense to their hotheaded brethren, "The Interrupters" explored a world of dangerous conflict and heroic redemption by combining intimate views of emotional turmoil with anthropological distance--an expert balance, to say the least.
It was also, according to that same word-of-mouth, incredibly long. At 162 minutes, the Sundance cut of "The Interrupters" ran about ten minutes shorter than "Hoop Dreams," one of the very few examples of modern non-fiction cinema not widely criticized for overdoing it. "The Interrupters" tells a much darker story, and functions more like a collage of incidents than a clean three-act structure. That's no easy sell.
Realizing as much, James and his colleagues re-cut the film as it continued along the festival circuit. In the week leading up to the movie's theatrical release today, a few reviews of (including my own) contain disclaimers requested by the filmmaker noting that they refer to an earlier version. There are actually three: After Sundance, a cut of the film that first played at the Dallas Film Festival and continued along the circuit through the Sheffield Film Festival ran 144 minutes. The theatrical version runs 125 minutes. That final result, the one that the majority of audiences will see, runs around 40 minutes shorter than the Sundance cut. In other words, the total amount excised since Sundance amounts to nearly a quarter the length of the original version.
This may come as a shock to those who have experienced "The Interrupters" at earlier stages, particularly since many of them found it entirely satisfying in its sprawling form. James, also the primary editor responsible for the changes, has taken an apologetic stance, but stands by the result. "I know how confusing this has been for everyone," he told me this week. "Normally, I take a year to edit a film like this. In the rush to Sundance and onto the festival circuit, that process got considerably shortened. That's why, despite great reviews and festival success, we trimmed the film some more." He insists the latest cut satisfies his original agenda. "This really is where it would have ended up with a more typical post-production schedule," he said. "And we think this is the best version of our story. Of course, you may disagree."
Having seen the Sundance and theatrical cuts, I really can't. However, the quantitative distinctions between various cuts are not also qualitative. Filled with enraged community dialogue, strategic meetings and tearful resolutions, "The Interrupters" remains the same movie at its core. With its two-hour running time, it still continues long enough to give the material room to breathe. The length enables an immersion factor, but not because of any specific scene.
In fact, for each significant cut, another incident with equal relevance to the narrative remains in. After Sundance, James removed the powerful "Lloyd vs. U.S. Floyd" scene, where a young man confronts the former convict he believes ordered the murder of his father. However, the final version still has a more rounded sequence in which "Li'l Mikey" Davis, a former teen robber, apologizes to his traumatized victims three years after the fact.
Unsurprisingly, the galvanizing figure at the center of "The Interrupters" has hardly been cut out at all. The only significant part removed involving CeaseFire negotiator Ammena Matthews finds her reading a note from her father, Chicago gangster Jeff Fort, while he was in prison. But another moment where she reflects on her troubled youth while sitting next to her mother has stayed in.
Other cuts include a late scene featuring violence interrupter Eddie Bocanegra, an activist-painter still haunted by the murder that put him in jail for 14 years. This one, which features Bocanegra in a college class discussing his crime, was dropped just prior to the theatrical cut. According to James, "it felt like we were belaboring his criminal past and making him look even more haunted by it than he already is." Indeed, Bocanegra discusses his lingering feelings of guilt several times throughout the movie. James also removed a CeaseFire meeting in which interrupter head Tio Hardiman discusses a police allegation that five interrupters have been involved in illegal activity. "Nothing ever came of that investigation," said James. "We felt it was a bit unfair, so we dropped it."
The cuts are logical, but not essential. "The Interrupters" contains an intrinsic value embedded in its technique and enhanced by the electricity of its main characters, each of whom has escaped a violent or abusive background in an effort to work against the tide of violence plaguing the city.
The progress of "The Interrupters" helps explain why it succeeds. Next week, New York's Anthology Film Archives begins a series entitled "Talking Head" focused on non-fiction works that exclusively involve people, cameras, and language. "The Interrupters" would have made a great centerpiece. Although it technically belongs to the cinema vérité tradition, it contains dozens of talking heads, whose stories create a natural flow and lend a sense of malleability to the proceedings. Hardiman talks about the need for an interrupter to "immerse yourself in the bullshit," and the movie has a similar effect on audiences.
Nevertheless, much of the material removed from the movie could stand on its own. Speaking of talking heads, Claude Lanzmann Holocaust epic "Shoah" contained a prolonged anecdote by Jan Karski, the Polish resistance fighter who briefed American forced about Nazi concentration camps ("Sobibor," a follow-up, is featured in the Anthology series). Although not in the completed film, Lanzmann recently released the 50-minute interview as a TV movie entitled "The Karski Report," a unique work that also fleshes out the historical context of "Shoah." In the case of "The Interrupters," additional scenes may help expand the personal grievances that enable the interrupters to keep grappling with a seemingly impossible task.
As the movie opens, Chicago residents face a new challenge. Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced today a curfew for children under the age of 12, a proclamation certain to divide the city. The mandate also reflects tensions visible in "The Interrupters." Subtitled "one year in the life of a city grappling with violence," it concludes with its main characters on the road, ready to face the next task at hand. The implication is clear: While that year came to an end, the life continued.