There’s only one thing wrong with “The Interrupters”—a 2011 documentary about people who survived their inner city upbringing and are now trying to help others do the same by “interrupting” before disputes lead to violence, and before violence leads to retaliation. Like the killing itself, the film goes on too long.

Still, it’s easy to see why Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) took 125 minutes to tell a story that begins feeling repetitious around the 100-minute mark. Once you’re introduced to real people like Ameena Matthews, a Muslim who came from the streets and now places herself in harm’s way on a daily basis to try to stop the killing, it’s hard to turn away. Once you meet China Joe, a “gladiator” everyone who wanted to join the Vice Lords had to fight, you’re wanting to watch him try to use his power to turn others away from violence as a member of the CeaseFire Interrupters, whose distinctive, Chicago Bears orange caps and jacket trim make them stand out like the referees they are in some of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods.

All of the real people in this documentary—which was filmed when Richard M. Daley was still mayor of Chicago, around the time when Fenger H.S. honor student Derrion Albert was beaten to death with a railroad tie—have stories that make them emblematic of the symptoms associated with violence.

There’s 18-year-old Caprysha, whom Ameena tries to help. Caprysha comes from a substance abuse background. Then there’s 32-year-old “Flamo,” who’s been targeted as another individual that’s worth turning around. “I respect what you’re doin’,” he tells violence interrupter “Cobe” Williams, “but fuck that.” Asked how many kids he has, his response is, “I’m claimin’ four,” and you know that responsible parenting is an issue. Then there’s “Lil” Mikey Davis, who at 17 has already served a three-year prison sentence for armed robbery, and who has a younger brother who looks up to him. Asked “How long your daddy been gone?” he replies, “17 years.” And “gone” is a euphemism, we come to understand, for “in prison.”

As a Chicago funeral director says, random shooting has been increasing, and “these children don’t expect to live past 30.” According to Tio Hardiman, founder of the violence interrupters program, “They’re not trying to dismantle gangs. What they’re trying to do is save a life.”

“There’s an old saying about sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt? Words’ll get you killed,” Ameena says during one camera interview. Apart from meetings that get overly talky and static, James mostly takes his cameras to the streets, and whatever insights we get from the violence interrupters or the people they’re trying to help come right there in the middle of often tense situations.
“Violence is infectious,” says epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, who founded CeaseFire. “For the young people in these neighborhoods, they see violence as their disease, and they expect to die from it.”

Although Chicago’s “gangsta” culture is covered—“We grew up gang-bangers. You ain’t with me, you against me. That’s the way it is.”—we learn that “it’s a myth that most violence is gang-based. It’s about personal conflict. Respect and disrespect. A lot of people feel ostracized, so what they do is try and dominate their surroundings.”

In other words, violence is part of the culture. A perceived act or word of disrespect is followed automatically by violence, because that’s the way everyone in tough neighborhoods like Englewood and Little Village thinks. It’s action/reaction. “If you don’t go hard, it’s your life,” one of the high school students says. At a Fenger H.S. Peace Summit, one of the interrupters asks a student why he’s so angry. “’Cause that’s the way I grew up. I always fight.”

That puts the interrupters in a precarious position, walking a thin line between gang-bangers and individuals caught up in violent lifestyles and the police. Their goal is to retain the trust of the people they’re trying to help by not turning anyone in or calling police, but to convince police that they’re not harboring criminals or withholding information that could prove vital. Then again, to hear residents of these battleground neighborhoods talk, the police don’t do much, because they’re afraid to even go into these neighborhoods.

That’s what makes the violence interrupters all the more heroic, and what makes this film a wonderful documentary. It’s guerilla filmmaking at its best, nicely edited so that voiceovers and form dissolves and such help to maintain a sense of constant flow and energy, rather than the clip/talking heads format that too many documentaries over-employ. And the cameras take us where few people dare to go. In the process, we learn more about America’s inner-city violence that we get from the newspapers, leaving us with some unshakeable images in the process—like shots of a Mexican family sitting around the gravesite of their teenage son, a victim of the violence. It’s a daily routine for them, with the father sitting, head held down, and the family trying to maintain a connection by including the son, even after his death. As they barbecue on a grill and have a picnic, surrounded by tombstones, it’s a powerful image . . . and statement.

“The Interrupters” is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and for a DVD it features consistently strong images and backgrounds with a minimal amount of grain and the kind of edge definition you normally only see on HD. “The Interrupters” is also available on Blu-ray.

An even bigger surprise is the sophisticated audio—a remarkably clear, rich, and full-sounding Dolby Digital 5.1, given the outdoor location filming. English SDH subtitles are also provided.

Aside from a trailer and a short “Behind the Scenes with the Composer, Joshua Abrams,” the bulk of the bonus features are 17 lengthy segments that never made their way into the film. Watching them, you can appreciate how tough it was for James to make cuts. It all seems relevant.

Bottom line:
Though “The Interrupters” goes on too long, and though the filmmakers and interrupters themselves have a more positive outlook on the problem that I think most viewers will as they see slow, painstaking, drop-in-the-bucket small victories, it’s still a solid, well-made, insightful and memorable film.