Steve James’ documentary "The Interrupters" has been garnering praise after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year (it currently has the highest score of any film this year on criticWIRE). Below Academy Award-nominee James shares a scene from his film (produced by James and Alex Kotlowitz, whose original New York Times article inspired the film), and offers a glimpse into his method.
For "The Interrupters," Alex and I had both been haunted by the persistent violence in communities like the ones I profiled in "Hoop Dreams," and he in his book “There Are No Children Here.” We felt that through the violence interrupters at CeaseFire we could give ourselves (and ultimately viewers) intimate access to these neighborhoods and a deeper understanding of what drives the violence, how people cope with it, and how people can overcome it.
I’ve always been a filmmaker interested in personal stories over issues or expert analysis. In fact, at Kartemquin Films, my documentary home for more than 25 years, we’ve always had an aversion to experts. We want to immerse the viewer in the lives of people and hear what they have to say about the social forces in their lives. They, in essence, are our experts.
And there were none better than Ameena, Cobe, and Eddie, the violence interrupters we profiled and followed in the film. "The Interrupters" unfolds over the course of one year – four seasons – as the interrupters mediate conflict and literally interrupt lives. Along the way we learn about each of the interrupters own lives and how they came to do the redemptive work they now do.
Eddie’s art class is a defining scene in our coming to understand him as central subject. It’s here that we learn how Eddie thinks outside the box as a violence interrupter, and ultimately how haunted he is about his own violent past.
When we made the plan to go shoot, expectations were that this would be a great way to introduce the fact that Eddie had discovered art in prison and that he was now using it to try new approaches around violence prevention. And, that is exactly what you do learn early in the scene. But like any memorable scene in a documentary, it became much more than simply that. We had no idea that Eddie planned to ask the kids to open up about their own fears. We see how he’s able to draw them out about their own fears. Finally he comes to the tiny young girl at the end who dissolves into tears after describing an incident she heard – neighbors arguing and gunshots - and is unable to finish. It’s a poignant glimpse into how even young kids can be already traumatized. It’s also an example for me of what I am continually amazed at in making documentaries: We’d never been to that class before, nor met those kids. Yet because of their trust in Eddie, they were willing to open up to him (and us by extension) so honestly and emotionally.
By the time we got to the editing room, we realized that it was the perfect scene to launch a full telling of Eddie’s past crime that landed him in prison for fourteen years. There was something about the young girls tears, coupled with Eddie’s own remorse over having committed murder that made this all work. The look on Eddie’s face as he listened to her and tried to comfort her spoke to his own feelings of guilt. When shooting scenes, I think its just as important, and sometimes more important, to see the person not talking. The impact on those listening can be more revealing than keeping the camera trained only on the person speaking.
The emotion of that scene is further heightened when Eddie says in VO and on camera at the end, “I think I stay busy so I can stay out of bullshit, and, try to forget about some of the things that I've done.”
Some of the best scenes in the film move from intense cinema verite moments to rumination and reflection by our central subjects. For me, this is the best of both worlds – the audience bears witness to something significant and affecting in a world most do not know, and are also made privy to Eddie’s interior life and feelings.