Forget about Supercop…

… what we need is the Interrupters!

In his search for the miracle cure to last month’s riots, David Cameron could do worse than take another break, though he won’t have to head too far this time. In fact, he won’t even have to leave London, he can just walk out of Downing Street, turn left up Whitehall, cross Trafalgar Square and straight into the Empire cinema on Leicester Square.

No, I’m not suggesting we need to learn from Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig how to deal with the violence on our streets, Cowboys vs Aliens style! (although…) But if he carries on a little further to screen 6, a room that sits no more than 25 people, he will be able to watch a beautiful documentary, funny, touching, humbling and so damn clever, a documentary that I am pretty sure will teach him more about how to deal with violence on the streets of London than any American supercop can (no offence, Harrison…)

The Interrupters tells the story of an organisation, CeaseFire, and its efforts to interrupt killings on the streets of Chicago. This isn’t a euphemism or a metaphor for some grander actions, it is literally what the organisation’s employees do: they try to (and often do) resolve conflicts, whether spontaneous or slowly simmering in an effort to avoid violence. The cameras followed the efforts of Cobe, Ameena, Edie and many others over a whole year as they drove around Chicago trying to put out various fires…

Cobe, Ameena and Edie all have pasts that include criminal acts and violence, although it is never completely spelt out what they did. And in fact, whatever they did before isn’t the point, what they are doing now is far more important. The intimacy that develops between the crew and the main subjects of the film (although you never see a cameraman or an interviewer, a few heads endearingly appear every now and then, in mirrors or the backseat of a car…) seems to lead them to open up about what they have done, and you sometimes get a glimpse of the pain and remorse they feel, and that inspired them to get involved with CeaseFire.

Gary Slutkin, Founder and Executive Director of CeaseFire and Tio Hardiman, creator of the Interrupters program Courtesy of Kartemquin Films

The starting point of the Interrupters’ action, and CeaseFire’s philosophy, is that violence is a learned behaviour and spreads like a disease. The commonly-used phrase ‘violence epidemic’ is given its full meaning by the Executive Director of CeaseFire, Gary Slutkin, a professor of epidemiology who spent most of his career fighting ‘real’ disease such as TB and HIV in the US and Africa. According to him, violence is just as real a disease as those little cells that pass from body to body. And just as physical measures can be taken to prevent the passing on of TB or HIV, so the spread of violence can be interrupted from one person to the next. (hear him speak about it here)

You can find the details of the way interruption works on CeaseFire’s website, and from a scientific and academic perspective, the approach is very persuasive. But from a human perspective, you just need to see the film to know that it works.

It works on a small and a wide scale, by stopping a man who just got beaten up in the street from retaliating and giving him a chance to cool down and see the funny side of his fat lip, but also by bringing together dozens of teenagers from the same school where a young boy was killed, to make sure that neighbourhood rivalry won’t lead to more violence.

It works by bringing together two brothers and their mother after years of family feud but it also works in the spur of the moment, when Cobe sets out to calm down ‘Flamo’, whose mother was just taken in handcuffs during a police raid because somebody grassed him up. His anger and humiliation makes you repeatedly fear for the interrupters’ safety, and yet he might well be the most good humoured and funny character in the film… The way he asks Cobe to pick up his phone for him because he’s got a gun in his pants and he can’t bend down is classic comedy, but also shows you the other face of violence and gun crime, the humiliation and anger and self-loathing that leads so many to lash out when they feel nobody is listening to or even hearing them…

It works even when there isn’t any immediate risk of violence, to help a young man coming out of jail to make amends and get a job, or to set up an art project with a local school who want to talk about street violence…

And when it doesn’t work, well, they keep making it work, visiting the family of a teenager who just got killed, providing security and comfort at the funeral of another young man, getting a young woman her first manicure, and going to see her when she gets locked up again…

Ameena Matthews (background), violence interrupter Courtesy of Kartemquin Films

Part of what makes this film so good is the strength and personality of the subjects, and Ameena in particular is such a great character to follow and learn from (think a younger, American version of the now famous Pauline from Hackney, without the walking stick but with incredibly glamorous headscarves) as she dispenses pearls of wisdom, tough love and hugs along with CeaseFire leaflets and stickers…

Rather than being intrusive, the fly-on-the-wall style of the documentary feels intimate and manages the incredible feat of showing the human side of violence without ever excusing it. It shows that there is no such thing as a simple explanation for all violence. Lil’ Mikey, Caprishia, Flamo and all the Interrupters each have a different story to tell, and a different way out of the cycle of violence they find themselves in. The one thing they do have in common is that, as says Ameena, having been dealt “a hand full of twos, they need to learn to play it like it’s a great hand”. (slight paraphrasing here due to my non-existent knowledge of poker rules…)

And this is precisely why the Prime Minister (and your good selves!) could do worse than take a stroll to Leicester Square this week. Who knows, he might even learn something useful…

Hurry though, the film is on until the end of the week only… 

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