"The Interrupters," a film about former criminals working to stop violence in Chicago, was named best documentary at the Film Independent Spirit Awards Saturday night.
Filmmakers Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz followed the violence interrupters working for Chicago's CeaseFire, an organization founded by Dr. Gary Slutkin. Slutkin believed that violence should be treated like a disease -- and the organization has managed to reduce shootings and killings by 41 to 73 percent, according to an independent evaluation by the Department of Justice.
James' widely acclaimed documentary "Hoop Dreams" was snubbed by the Oscars in 1994, and many were shocked to see the same thing happen with "The Interrupters." But the Independent Spirit Award for "Best Documentary," as Roger Ebert notes, is "no less significant."
“It's really great to win this award and win it the day before the Oscars,” James told the Chicago Tribune after winning the Spirit award Saturday. “It's a great endorsement from the independent film community on the value of the film.”
Alex Kotlowitz, who produced the film and wrote a New York Times article about CeaseFire before joining the project, also acknowledged the snub -- but was happy with how much attention the film has received.
“Look, the Oscars, we were surprised and a little disappointed (not to be nominated), but the film has done remarkably, and this makes up for that,” Kotlowitz told the Tribune. “It’s been such a great ride with this film. This just tops it off.”
"The Interrupters" follows Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra, all former gang members who now work to keep Chicago youth out of trouble. It also tells the story of former hustler and drug addict Tio Hardiman, who is now the Director of CeaseFire Illinois (and a Huffington Post blogger). Hardiman told The Huffington Post that CeaseFire's model works because it isn't preachy -- it's real people from the same neighborhoods and similar backgrounds trying to talk something out before drastic and often violent action is taken.
"You got to talk as if, 'Man, I know, I been there," Hardiman said. "Save yourself brother -- I'm not preaching to you."
Both Slutkin and Hardiman believe that violence is not the result of "bad" or "evil" people, but a learned behavior tied to one's birth and environment. The film also downplays the media narrative that gangs are to blame for shootings and killings in city neighborhoods, explaining that many of these incidents stem from interpersonal conflicts.
The Huffington Post's Amy Lee weighed in on the film in October:
"The Interrupters" seems less concerned with selling us an easy tale of redemption where everyone resolves their past mistakes and all the children are saved, and more concerned with making us understand that we cannot judge the decisions of another human being without understanding why they made them.
"This means a lot for a film like this,” James said while accepting the award. “It’s about urban violence. We didn’t realize the impact this film would have.”
WATCH the Interrupters on PBS here.