November 30, 2011 -- Violence is a disease and the violence interrupters of the Chicago organization Ceasefire are the antibodies. These all-purpose social workers step in just before the killing is about to start, and stop it in its tracks. In his best film since “Hoop Dreams,” director Steve James tells a deeply moving, inspiring story about a unique program to stop violence.
The documentary film tells the deeply personal story of the violence interrupters and the people they try to help. Ceasefire was conceived by Gary Slutkin, who had worked for years in Africa, treating people with AIDS and cholera. In Chicago, Slutkin saw parallels between the spread of violence and the spread of diseases. He thought a similar approach to disease prevention would work in stopping violence. Violence is born out of grievances, either real or perceived. These grievances quickly boil over into anger, confrontation, which then escalates into violence which can start with fists, and end with bullets. Slutkin's idea was to intervene at the point of confrontation and work to resolve the grievance.
Instead of using psychologists or other professionals to do this job, he chose experts in violence, people with a violent past, including people who had spent time in prison for felonies, including murder. These people had lived the same life as the people on the street, spoke the same language and had made the same mistakes. The difference is that the violence interrupters have overcome their violent ways and want to help others do the same.
One of the most compelling of the violence interrupters is Ameena Matthews, the daughter of one of the most powerful gang leaders in Chicago, Jeff Fort. A convert to Islam, Ameena has gotten her life together. She not only stops violence, but is raising four children and taking care of her family at the same time. Her skills as a violence interrupter are impressive. She knows just what to say to defuse a situation. Her patience is taxed, however, by a troubled young girl who can't seem to get her life on track. When Ameena finds out the girl has skipped classes she has an angry confrontation with the girl, who storms away. Next day, the girl is in custody, but Ameena doesn't give up, and neither does the girl.
There are more violent confrontations in the film. One violence interrupter is shot and hospitalized, the first such incident in the history of the organization. Other confrontations look as dangerous. One of the most intense is a visit by violence interrupters to the home of a man known as Flamo. He has a gun and is ready to hunt down informants who caused his mother and brother to be arrested. The situation is very tense, but Flamo finally calms down and violence is prevented. Near the end of the film we see a remarkable transformation. The drug-addled Flamo has cleaned up and has a legitimate job working for the Chicago Transit Authority.
There are many moving, emotional scenes in the film. One of them has a teenager named Lil' Mikey recently released from prison who goes back to a barbershop he robbed at gunpoint to apologize to the people he robbed. A woman he robbed explains how she feared for her life and the life of her daughter, and how she continues to be scarred by the robbery. Then she embraces Lil' Mikey and tells him she hopes he will be a better man. Later on the film, Lil' Mikey finally gets a job, which is not easy for a class X felon, at a day care center.
The film is punctuated by scenes of many sad little makeshift shrines with flowers and teddy bears and other mementos at places where children, teenagers and adults were gunned down. Handwritten notes at these shrines are revealing. The despair caused by this constant violence is evident in one note that says “I'm next.” During 2009, when this film was shot in Chicago, an average of five people were shot each day, and most of those shootings were concentrated in half of the police districts in the city. According to one study, Ceasefire reduced the number of killings by up to 27 percent in some neighborhoods. The courage, determination and intelligence of these violence interrupters is inspiring, but even more inspiring are the people trying so hard to overcome this plague of violence and live decent lives. This film rates an A.
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