Mindful Metropolis April 2011 : Page 16

by nic halverson INTERCEPTING THE WHISPERS ameena matthews, violence interrupter A riveting new documentary captures a riding-shotgun portrait of Chicago anti-violence organization, CeaseFire, and chronicles the hazards and victories of its Violence Interrupters cobe Williams, violence interrupter A t last month’s True/False Film Fes-tival in Columbia, Missouri, a jaw-dropped audience sat on the edge of their seats watching a documentary in the flickering blue light of the sold-out Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts. Eyebrows arched, they covered their mouths, gasping at the shocking scenes of Chicago’s street violence. Yet it was the motivating images and words of redemption that gave the audience its stron-gest jolt, evident in the tears rolling down their cheeks and into their laps. Before the screening, a line of 100 people queued on the sidewalk with their fingers crossed, hoping to get inside with good rea-son—this was no ordinary documentary and this was no ordinary film festival. Germinating now for eight years, the True/False Film Festival is the pride of Co-lumbia, drawing on the small college town’s fertile heritage of blue-ribbon journalism to blossom into the vanguard provocateur of cutting-edge nonfiction filmmaking. Eclips-ing itself each year in prestige and num-bers—this year’s fest saw almost a 20 percent jump in ticket sales, selling about 30,000 tickets—the festival, however, remains dedi-cated to its folksy, altruistic principles. Most emblematic of this integrity is the festival’s True Life Fund, awarded annually to the director and/or subjects of a subver-sive film that demonstrates an active convic-tion towards social justice. “What we look for in these films are people who are on-screen who I feel like are in either great need or doing great things,” says festival co-founder David Wilson, who helps select these films along with co-founder, Paul Sturtz. Money is collected from philanthropic fundraisers, like this year’s True Life Run, online donations and even the old-fashioned way—buckets passed throughout the audi-ences after film screenings. In 2009, festival crowds raised over $10,000 for the underground journalists profiled in Anders Østergaard’s Burma VJ. Last year, the fund raised $8,500 for the Cambodian jour-nalist Thet Sambath, featured in Enemies of the People. The inaugural year of the True Life Fund—2007—over $8,500 was raised to help buy school supplies for orphans in the Children of Agape choir in South Africa. “They don’t appear in these documentaries with the idea that they will personally benefit in any way,” says David Wilson. “They agree to appear because they believe in a cause. And I think it’s great that we can give them this small benefit. I think about it as a feedback loop—they’re giving something to us, and sharing something with us. And this is our way of completing that loop and giving back.” This year’s True Life Fund focused its char-ity on more domestic shores, namely the third coast shores of Chicago, and selected a film that not only left audiences in tears, but also quaked festivalgoers into action. With lumps in their throats and inspiration coursing through their veins, festival crowds and the surround-ing community reached deep into their pock-pHotos courtesy oF KartemQuin Films 16 april 2011

Intercepting The Whispers

Nic Halverson

A riveting new documentary captures a ridingshotgun portrait of Chicago anti-violence organization, CeaseFire, and chronicles the hazards and victories of its Violence Interrupters<br /> <br /> At last month’s True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, a jawdropped audience sat on the edge of their seats watching a documentary in the flickering blue light of the sold-out Missouri Theatre Center for the Arts. Eyebrows arched, they covered their mouths, gasping at the shocking scenes of Chicago’s street violence. Yet it was the motivating images and words of redemption that gave the audience its strongest jolt, evident in the tears rolling down their cheeks and into their laps.<br /> <br /> Before the screening, a line of 100 people queued on the sidewalk with their fingers crossed, hoping to get inside with good reason— this was no ordinary documentary and this was no ordinary film festival.<br /> <br /> Germinating now for eight years, the True/False Film Festival is the pride of Columbia, drawing on the small college town’s fertile heritage of blue-ribbon journalism to blossom into the vanguard provocateur of cutting-edge nonfiction filmmaking. Eclipsing itself each year in prestige and numbers— this year’s fest saw almost a 20 percent jump in ticket sales, selling about 30,000 tickets—the festival, however, remains dedicated to its folksy, altruistic principles.<br /> <br /> Most emblematic of this integrity is the festival’s True Life Fund, awarded annually to the director and/or subjects of a subversive film that demonstrates an active conviction towards social justice.<br /> <br /> “What we look for in these films are people who are on-screen who I feel like are in either great need or doing great things,” says festival co-founder David Wilson, who helps select these films along with co-founder, Paul Sturtz.<br /> <br /> Money is collected from philanthropic fundraisers, like this year’s True Life Run, online donations and even the old-fashioned way—buckets passed throughout the audiences after film screenings.<br /> <br /> In 2009, festival crowds raised over $10,000 for the underground journalists profiled in Anders Østergaard’s Burma VJ. Last year, the fund raised $8,500 for the Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath, featured in Enemies of the People. The inaugural year of the True Life Fund—2007—over $8,500 was raised to help buy school supplies for orphans in the Children of Agape choir in South Africa.<br /> <br /> “They don’t appear in these documentaries with the idea that they will personally benefit in any way,” says David Wilson. “They agree to appear because they believe in a cause. And I think it’s great that we can give them this small benefit. I think about it as a feedback loop—they’re giving something to us, and sharing something with us. And this is our way of completing that loop and giving back.”<br /> <br /> This year’s True Life Fund focused its charity on more domestic shores, namely the third coast shores of Chicago, and selected a film that not only left audiences in tears, but also quaked festivalgoers into action. With lumps in their throats and inspiration coursing through their veins, festival crowds and the surrounding community reached deep into their pock ets and raised a record breaking $15,000.<br /> <br /> The fountainhead of this True Life Fund buzz was The Interrupters, the new documentary by acclaimed Hoop Dreams director, Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz, best selling author of There Are No Children Here.<br /> <br /> The riveting film captures a riding-shotgun portrait of Chicago anti-violence organization, CeaseFire, and chronicles the hazards and victories of three of the organization’s street crusaders, otherwise known as “Violence Interrupters” whose street cred, rap sheets and reputations are actually on-the-job assets.<br /> <br /> Their job, as director of CeaseFire Illinois, Tio Hardiman puts it, is to “intercept whispers”, to intervene and mediate conflicts where retaliatory violence threatens to descend into a never-ending cycle of chaos.<br /> <br /> Because most Violence Interrupters are exoffenders, they’re able to utilize the deep-seated roots and connections of their checkered pasts to help leverage change and negotiate truces in Chicago’s most volatile neighborhoods.<br /> <br /> CeaseFire is the brainchild of its executive director, epidemiologist Dr.Gary Slutkin, who for ten years worked with the World Health Organization fighting the spread of cholera and AIDS in Africa. Launched in 2000 in West Garfield Park, CeaseFire took its innovative approach from lessons Slutkin learned while working overseas. He believes that violence mimics infectious disease and therefore should be treated similarly by attending to the most infected areas first and stopping the infection at its source.<br /> <br /> “Most infectious diseases are controlled, not with antibiotics,” Slutkin says in the film, “but by change in behavior.”<br /> <br /> To do so, he relies on a fleet of on-point Violence Interrupters who he affectionately refers to as “disease control workers.” <br /> <br /> The Interrupters was filmed over much of 2009—a year in which Chicago’s epidemic of violence exploded into the limelight and carved a cavity in the national conscience. Just weeks after the first day of school, 16- year old Derrion Albert was beaten to death with a two-by-four, his last moments ruthlessly captured on cell phone video and splashed about media outlets around the nation. Illinois politicians, both state and local, threw up their hands. To quell the violence, they proposed prescribing a gigantic antibiotic— the National Guard.<br /> <br /> Meanwhile, CeaseFire Violence Interrupters were attending to the infection at its source, a tactic far more dangerous and effective than calling in the cavalry while surrounded by the bright lights of a press conference. Most politicians lack the brass to break up melees between stumbling-into-traffic street fighters wielding butcher knifes and chunks of concrete.<br /> <br /> But for Violence Interrupter, Ameena Mathews, that’s just another day at the office. “The timing of this film is perfect for what needs to be talked about,” says Ameena. “The discussion is open. People are tired of trying to do what they’ve been doing because it hasn’t worked.” <br /> <br /> Alongside her colleagues Eddie Bocanegra and Cobe Williams, Ameena is one of the featured three ‘interrupters’ in the film. Daughter of one of Chicago’s most notorious gang leaders, Jeff Fort, she herself became a prominent street gang lieutenant and drug ring enforcer before finding peace through Islam. Known for her bravado, it’s no exaggeration when her husband calls her a pied piper who would go face-to-face with a lion.<br /> <br /> Here in lies the essence of Ameena’s character, and for that matter, Eddie and Cobe’s as well. The success of an interrupter lies in their ability to mix braggadocio and the hustler’s charisma with the gravity, influence and persuasion of sound logic. And it’s impeccably captured throughout the film.<br /> <br /> Ameena has the tenacity of an angry cobra, audacious enough to strike inches away from the faces of Chicago’s toughest roughnecks if showing her fangs means getting her point across. In the same instance, however, she’s capable of hatching out of her street-tough cocoon and fluttering into a soft-spoken butterfly of empathy; the touch of her hand on a shoulder as graceful as a Monarch landing on a lilac. It’s this version of Ameena that resonates the most with those in conflict. Crying is a sign of weakness for most people Ameena helps, but through her dedication, she often reduces even the most recalcitrant to tears, to which Ameena responds, “It’s okay to cry. Angels make prayers in your tears.”<br /> <br /> Ameena’s charisma is infectious. She can command any room—or theater, and did so during the film’s Q&A sessions. Her voice resonating through an onstage microphone, she was overcome with emotion expressing her love for the reception she and “her brothers” received in Columbia.<br /> <br /> Choking back the tears, Ameena told a packed theater, “You guys are just so nonjudgmental. It’s so amazing to be embraced and be around people who care about issues of our youth.”<br /> <br /> Clutching her heart, she graciously compared Columbia to the familiar feeling of returning home.<br /> <br /> Eddie Bocanegra, an “interrupter” who served a 14-year sentence for a murder he committed when he was 17, had similar sentiments about the film festival’s more downto- earth, approachable crowd: <br /> <br /> “Not to take anything away from Sundance— it’s obviously a prestigious festival. But the people there, a lot of them come from Hollywood or the upper class. The people that come to the True/False festival are more ‘Regular Joes’. It feels like home.”<br /> <br /> As with all the “interrupters,” Eddie was in high demand. After one screening, a flock of “Regular Joe’s” surrounded Eddie like he was an apostle as he proselytized to the group asking how they could help.<br /> <br /> “You really have the power to help people,” Eddie preached, “whether it’s through your job or whatever talents you guys have, whether it’s music or art—whatever it is. From a straight faith perspective, we all have gifts God has given us. Use them. Especially since we consider ourselves Christians.”<br /> <br /> Like many of the festivalgoers, those listening to Eddie appeared affluent and far removed from inner-city poverty and violence, which makes no difference to the “interrupters.”<br /> <br /> “This documentary opens up the conversation for the haves and the have-nots—for everyone to get involved,” exclaims Ameena. “Violence is an everybody problem, an everywhere problem and it’s a right-now problem.”<br /> <br /> Cobe Williams, the third featured “interrupter” agrees.<br /> <br /> “I think a lot of people want to get involved now,” says Cobe. “They see the things that are going on. Violence is not just in Chicago. Violence is everywhere. And I think everybody’s been seeing it. Everywhere we go, all I hear is ‘how can we get involved?’”<br /> <br /> Scarred by the beating death of his father when he was 12, Cobe did 12 years for drug trafficking before finding a renewed sense of purpose through family and his work with CeaseFire. Perhaps one of the most dedicated “interrupters” on staff, Cobe continued to work for free when CeaseFire temporarily lost its funding. When he speaks of the film, the breathless passion of his proclamations makes him sound like a prizefighter.<br /> <br /> “We gonna do whatever we can to get it out,” Cobe rants. “We gonna have to continue goin’ to more festivals. Whatever we have to do, we’re gonna do it to get our message out. We gonna spread the word—by phone, by everything. We gonna use every resource we got to try and put it out there.”<br /> <br /> As recipients of the True Life Fund, CeaseFire will receive the $15,000 raised during the festival to put towards their resources. However, they plan on spreading the wealth to the upstart anti-violence organization Aim4Peace, which was modeled after CeaseFire’s Violence Interrupter program. Based in Kansas City, Mo., Aim4Peace will receive a quarter of the proceeds.<br /> <br /> “They’re superheroes to me,” said True/False co-founder David Wilson, referring to Ameena, Eddie and Cobe. “Given what they’ve gone through, given what they’ve seen in their lives and where their lives have taken them; for them to be as comfortable, gracious, appreciative and devoted—and I speak for all of us—it was a huge honor to get to spend time with them and meet them.” <br /> <br /> Cobe Williams throws the love right back: “We appreciate being here. Like Eddie and Ameena said—they showed us mad love here. This is something wonderful, man. I feel good. Now I can go back home and tell my wife about this. [Ameena] can tell her husband. [Eddie] can tell his fiancé. We’ve opened a lot of people’s eyes. So many people came and said, ‘man, that touched me.’” <br /> <br /> Attending to prior commitments back home in Chicago, co-producer Alex Kotlowitz had left the morning after the festival’s opening night, missing the The Interrupters’ True/False premiere (the film screened twice). However, when he learned of the scintillating reception the film was enjoying, he drove throughout the night, back to Columbia and was on stage for the final Q&A.<br /> <br /> “I had such good time—on impulse—I drove back down,” Kotlowitz told the theater of people hooting and hollering in approval.<br /> <br /> The Interrupters has an indisputable effect on audiences. Those that see it leave the theaters spurned to take action, for its rabble-rousing bugle call is virtually impossible to ignore.<br /> <br /> To be an agent of change or a successful filmmaker, one must produce— through his or her actions or talents—something that is impossible to ignore. With this film, Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz have done just that—they’ve created something that cannot be ignored.<br /> So, too, has CeaseFire’s Violence Interrupters, and they continue to do so after the credits roll.<br /> <br /> In a pivotal and rewarding scene in the film, a young man named Flamo—who was on the verge of strapping-up to hunt down a rival when Cobe intervened—perfectly sums up the nature of “the interrupters” and why they’re so effective.<br /> <br /> “You constantly in my ear,” Flamo tells Cobe. “It’s like when you’re sleepin’ and a fly keeps buzzing in your ear. Eventually, you gotta get up and attend to that fly.”

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