Alex Kotlowitz, the writer-in-residence at Northwestern’s Center for the Writing Arts, spoke to students Tuesday about his 2011 award-winning documentary,The Interrupters, that profiles the Chicago-based anti-violence group CeaseFire and its group of “violence interrupters” who try to reduce violence in Chicago neighborhoods by helping to mediate disputes between gangs. The documentary had its US television premier the week before as a part of the PBS documentary series Frontline. Kotlowitz recently spoke with North by Northwesternabout the making of The Interrupters and where the project is going from here.
North by Northwestern: How did this project start?
Alex Kotlowitz: I had been working on a cover story for the New York Times magazine about CeaseFire, this public health anti-violence organization in Chicago, and I was writing about the organization and the Interrupters. I had this unusual experience – and it doesn't happen very often because I usually think that print trumps film – but I felt, “Boy this could make a really terrific documentary if you could get the access you needed.” Just sitting around these Wednesday meetings with all these former gang leaders and big time drug dealers who for one reason or another had found another act in life. I just thought about all the stories around that table, and they had this incredible aperture onto the city.
[Director] Steve James and I had been long time friends. We’d been talking about doing something together in the dramatic realm, and I began talking about this story I was working on, and he got really intrigued. Then when the piece came out that Sunday he read it and called and said, “Let’s try to make this work.”
NBN: What do you think about the public reaction/recognition this film has received?
AK: It’s been remarkable, and in some ways really exhilarating. Steve and I hoped the film would be critically well-received. We’d hoped we’d find an audience. It’s beyond, I think, what we could have imagined. What’s really been terrific is I feel like people really get it. One of the things that was clear to us as we were in the midst of filming, we thought it was going to be a rather grim year of filming, and yet spending time with the three main subjects, Ameena [Matthews], Cobe [Williams] and Eddie [Bocanegra], we were so inspired, and we showed this sense of progress, a sense of hope. And I think people see that in the film as well, and so that’s just been really rewarding.
NBN: What did you think about the film finally getting its US television premier?
AK: Frontline was actually with us from the very beginning. They and ITVS [Independent Television Service] were our initial funders. So we always knew it was going to air on Frontline. I think what we were thrilled about, in the end, was that Frontline was willing to give the film two hours, which they don’t ordinarily do. What was great about this was we had a great run at the festivals, we had a great theatrical run, and it found this new audience on Frontline.
NBN: Do you still keep in contact with CeaseFire and the Interrupters?
AK: Well the Interrupters are all three of them very dear friends, and we’re very close. I see and talk to them quite a bit.
NBN:Where does this project go from here? What’s next for The Interrupters?
AK: One of the things we’re determined to do is put together a robust and ambitious outreach campaign with this film. We really want to get this film into communities, especially communities that’ve been hit by the violence, whether in Chicago or elsewhere. So we’re working now to try to get the film into schools and to juvenile detention centers and to churches. We even screened it at a prison a couple weeks ago. And so that’s our effort at the moment is to make sure this film has a life beyond its broadcast.