The Devil's Tomb
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Documentary by Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz following the work of CeaseFire, an organisation dedicated to tackling street violence at the source
Shot over the course of a year and divided into four seasons like some kind of urban inner city Another Year (if Mike Leigh made documentaries about Chicago gang violence), The Interrupters is a timely look at the psychology of people who feel they have so little to live for they will risk incarceration, injury or death for what seem like trivial ends, ends that cannot possibly justify their terrible means.
The murder of Derrion Albert, a Chicago High School student beaten to death on camera on 2009, saw Chicago become symbolic in the US of a violent underclass prepared to commit horrible acts over petty sums of money (at one point in the film, a dispute breaks out over five dollars) or even notional concepts of 'disrespect', which might simply mean looking at somebody the wrong way. In The Interrupters, Hoop Dreams director Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here, follow a group called CeaseFire whose aim is to put a stop to the cycle of violence.
CeaseFire differ from other groups with similar aims in two ways. Firstly, they are the brainchild of epidemiologist Gary Slutkin whose work stopping the spread of AIDS gave him the idea to treat violence as if it is a communicable disease - not a bad concept in animals as social as human beings, where violence can be socially led. CeaseFire identify ringleaders in communities and target them, rather than taking a more diffuse approach involving leafleting or public service announcements.
Secondly, the staff of CeaseFire are made up of reformed murderers, drug-runners, thieves - all kinds of former criminals hailing from the very communities they seek to change. This also gives the filmmakers their three main characters, whose work the film follows, the 'violence interrupters' of the title: Muslim convert Ameena Matthews, ex-convict Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra, who committed a murder aged 17. For the people they aim to reach, these three are able to make more convincing arguments for changing your life than somebody who has never experienced a life like theirs.
Naturally, this approach raises multiple moral questions which the film explores in an unhurried fashion over a borderline too-generous two-hour-plus runtime. This detailed treatment has its merits - you feel by the end that you know these people, and it avoids the glib effect that over-reliance on talking heads can lend, to the detriment of some well-meaning documentaries. Where it could easily have been sensationalist, this is a thoughtful approach to thoughtless acts, and well worth your time.
More relevant now than ever, this is a film that seeks to understand violent acts and the people who commit them, whilst never excusing the damage they do. It also offers a space for people who have committed terrible crimes to show remorse, which results in the film's most moving scenes.
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