Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Interrupters

MPAA (Unrated) Roger Ebert (4 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert’s review -

The Interrupters (directed by Steve James) is a documentary which follows a Chicago-based gang intervention group called Ceasefire and its interrupters, which began as a project of Epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, M.D. of the University of Illinois, Chicago.  Though he had spent much of his career combating infectious disease in East Africa, he came to see inner-city violence in terms of an infectious disease / public health model.  From this model came his approach of assembling a group “interrupters” composed of _former gang members_ who had all served serious time in prison for serious crimes, who would be specifically trained to intervene in situations of incipient gang or street violence to deescalate the situations and talk the people down from acting out their rage.  They would maintain a presence in neighborhoods at risk and establish rapport and friendships with youth at risk, etc.

The model is as yet not a silver bullet, but it does help.  It does have its element of controversy as it does use former convicts.  Nevertheless, these former convicted gang members do have _immediate street credibility_ with current gang members at risk of getting in trouble themselves and it offers these former convicted gang members an opportunity at redemption.

Indeed, the movie presents many examples of such redemption and reconciliation.  One particularly striking example was of a young man who had served several years in prison for the armed hold-up of beauty solon, came along with several members of “the Interrupters” back to the beauty salon that he had held-up at gun point to apologize to the owner.  He got an earful from her as she described to him in detail what it was like to be at the other end of his gun and not knowing whether she, her children, co-workers and patrons were going to live through the morning that he held-up her shop.  Still by the end of the encounter, she forgave him and thanked him for having the courage to come back.  And there several other such encounters in the film. 

Another example was of a man, now serving as an Interrupter who had served 14 years in jail for having killed another person in a gang shooting.  (Apparently he was a minor at the time in which he killed the other person).  He now spends his days helping to keep others from killing on the street.  In one segment of the documentary, the camera crew followed him on the anniversary of the day that he killed the other person as he performed various deeds of kindness for various random people that he met on that day.  He explained that he tries to do this each year on that day to partly expiate for his past sin. 

Yes, one could be left with the nagging question “Is that enough?”  And one _may_, in fact, (as I did) leave the film with the question of whether _the whole project_ of using former serious felons for such peaceable roles is completely right.  After all, these were former criminals, who yes, were now doing something definitely positive with their pasts.  Still, they did _hurt_ people (or even killed people) in the past.  STILL ALL RELIGION and ESPECIALLY Christianity and then ESPECIALLY Catholicism is PRECISELY ABOUT FORGIVENESS/REDEMPTION.

So if one feels _a little uneasy_ watching the film, and wondering if this is completely on the level, I _do_ believe that this would be somewhat natural.  On the other hand, bottom line, as CHRISTIANS and again as ESPECIALLY CATHOLICS we do believe _in the forgiveness of sins_ (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed). And in the Catechism of the Catholic Church we are reminded (#983): There is no offense, however serious, that the Church cannot forgive.  “There is no one, however wicked or guilty, who may not confidently hope for forgiveness, provide his prepentance is honest” (Roman Catechism I,11,5). Christ who died for all men desires that in his Church the gates of forgivenss should always be open to anyone who turns away from sin (cf Mt. 18:21-22).  So watching this film and believing in both the possibility of redemption and even believing that the contributions of those who had previously “messed up” may, in fact, _be necessary_ to redeem or rebuild the world (or at least a neighborhood) to what it should be _becomes an act of faith_.

Finally, many viewers will be surprised (and perhaps, again, challenged) to see one of the main Interrupters followed in this movie to be a _young muslim woman_ named Amina.  Her father had been a notorious black gangster in Chicago.  She herself led a rather dissolute life when she was young as a party girl, ending up serving time for drug dealing.  But she changed.  She converted to Islam, married an Imam and is now spending her days talking young people down from violence (How's that an inversion of the image of Islam from that of Al Queda / Osama bin Laden?).  And as we watch her do it, most of us will understand why she is so successful: She sounds “just like one of us” (an American living in the inner city) and yet she also speaks out of experience of having made bad/violent choices in the past.  I commented after seeing the movie that as a result of this movie, Amina may become the most famous young muslim woman in America.  And given her peaceable example, I don’t think that this would be a bad thing.

Again, this movie challenges one _in all kinds of ways_ (often surprising) and us to be open to reconciliation and with everyone.

Finally, it appears that Steve James and the other makers of The Interrupters are not particularly interested widely available for theater release (though the critical acclaim that it has received, we'll be hearing about it come Oscars time).  Instead, the makers of the film are hoping to make the movie available for classroom and other small group discussion settings.

In that regard, parents should note that there isn't much graphic violence shown, though sometimes the language is definitely bad (of the street) and some of the stories told by the interrupters themselves of their former lives are at times somewhat lurid.  So the movie isn't for little kids (As often is the case with such films, they probably wouldn't understand it anyway).  However older preteens and certainly teenagers would certainly benefit from viewing the film and certainly in a classroom/discussion setting.

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