SXSW Report: Three docs that pack a punch

In the first of a three-part round up, realscreen reports on a trio of gritty, hot picks from this year's South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, including The Interrupters, the latest effort from Hoop Dreams director Steve James.
March 17, 2011

If one were to find a common theme running through the first batch of South by Southwest screenings taken in by realscreen this year, it would be that of violence.

The examination of why people hurt each other was a key element in Fightville; Heaven, Hell and The Interrupters, albeit in markedly different forms and for drastically different reasons.

In Fightville – a great, bloody slab of red meat of a documentary – directors Michael Tucker and Pepper Epperlein turn their lenses to the hardcore world of mixed martial arts (MMA).

The film follows the trainers and fighters at USA MMA, a gym in South Louisiana which attempts to train local hard men to become semi-pro or professional cage-fighters, graduating to the big-league, big-buck world of pay-per-view organizations such as the UFC.

Naturally, as anyone who has ever watched an MMA fight can attest, there’s a fair amount of blood, bruising and direct physical contact involved.

But beyond the primordial rush of watching two people knock lumps out of each other, Fightville does an excellent job of showing the intense training that goes on behind the scenes for these young men, with USA MMA’s ‘gladiators’ typically putting in 40 hours of sparring a week.

Central to the doc’s narrative are Albert and Dustin, two young fighters in their early twenties aspiring to hit the big league. Showing the candid motivations behind the men – who both appear surprisingly normal, eloquent, somewhat philosophical and often spiritual about the world they inhabit – is where the film really hits its stride.

Fightville is as much about the world of promotion, the psychology and the family life behind the fighters, as it is about the fighters themselves, and the insights offered by Dustin’s wife, mother and his trainers are rewarding and revealing.

By the film’s close and the final make-or-break fights, the directors have drawn you so closely into the world of these men that the viewer’s heart palpably beats in his or her chest amid the tension of finding out whether or not they will realize their dreams. The high-voltage footage would no doubt work on its own, but the pumping soundtrack and stylized editing adds considerably to the pacing of the doc. Expect it to make further noise on the festival circuit later this year.

From the other side of the Atlantic, HBO Central Europe brings us a film about pain and endurance, although on a radically different subject.

David Čálek’s Heaven, Hell explores the complex world of BDSM (bondage, dominance and sadomasochism), following a diverse group of self-professed ‘deviants’ going about their everyday jobs, interspersed with clips showing their after-hours interests.

These include a dominatrix; a woman who enjoys being tortured; and a man who is at his happiest pretending he is a horse. All are portrayed as being fairly normal people who are simply at their happiest indulging their fantasies.

From the opening whip cracks, it is clear this is not going to be a film for the squeamish, and before the film’s 84-minute runtime elapses, be prepared to witness a variety of lashings, piercings, electrocutions and nettle torture (of the genitals, no less).

If you can stomach all that then you should find the end result insightful; however, it should be noted that the doc’s most alarming scene comes towards the end, in which a fetishist – fully dressed in a horse outfit – is seen playing with children in a supermarket. The footage is, to this reviewer, alarming and of questionable morality.

Finally, weighing in at a whopping two hours and 42 minutes, The Interrupters may well be the longest documentary playing at SXSW this year. However, as the hype rapidly building around it suggests, it is also one of the best.

The BBC Storyville- and PBS-backed feature is the latest effort from Steve James, best known for directing the epic basketball documentary Hoop Dreams, a film cited by many as being one of the best of the past quarter century. In that film, James and his team spent more than four years with their subjects, two aspiring African-American basketball stars in Chicago.

The Interrupters has James returning to the Windy City, this time for a just over a year, to follow the work of CeaseFire, an inner-city community response organisation, consisting of mostly former gang members who attempt to prevent killings between rival gangs in one of the most dangerous locations in America.

From the first to the last frame, this is an engaging and heart-wrenching film, with framing, pacing, scoring and editing that is nothing short of astonishing. Everything about this documentary works, and despite its frequently dark subject matter, The Interrupters is filled with humor, and overflowing with wonderful little moments that capture characters at their most intimate.

James and his team predominately focus on three ‘interrupters’ – Ameena Matthews, the outspoken and energetic daughter of a Chicago drug lord; Cobe Williams, a softly-spoken former gangster; and Eddie Bocanegra, a reformed criminal carrying the heavy burden of a gun-toting past.

As local youths and gang members become involved in fracases and shootings, the interrupters approach the victims and victims’ friends in an attempt to dissuade them from violent retaliation, a venture in which they are sometimes successful.

Each character is compelling and absorbing, and the scenes showing them with their families – in particular Williams’ and Matthews’ closeness to their grandmothers – are heart-warming. James achieves a sense of intimacy and transparency which is laudable.

The film has been described by some as a real-life version of The Wire, and the analogy works well. Throughout The Interrupters, the hopelessness and despair of many of these characters – locked in a cycle of abuse and violence – is saddening and at times tough to watch.

In one particularly memorable scene, likely to bring tears to the eyes of even the toughest moviegoer, a young schoolgirl breaks down in front of her class, distraught by the violence tearing apart her neighborhood. In another, Williams attempts to talk an angry man, Flamo, down from an act of violent retribution, warning that an attempt to strike back will likely result in jail time.

The threat prompts scorn and derision. “I’m 32 and I’ve been in jail for 15 years,” replies Flamo, adding that he has no shame or fear of going back to prison. “That’s where I grew up,” he says.

In a Q&A after the event, James (pictured above with SXSW festival producer Janet Pierson) told delegates he shot more than 300 hours of material in the nearly 14 months he spent making the film. “We weren’t trying to make a reality TV show,” he told attendees. “We wanted to show the visceral reality of the situation there.”

On the decision to shoot in Chicago – as opposed to any of the U.S.’ other high homicide-rate cities – James said that it was a simple matter of that being his hometown. However, he admitted that in recent years, the city has “somehow become a poster child” for the problems of violent crime in America.

And as for the film’s lengthy running time – the only real foreseeable barrier to a wider audience – James revealed that the film could have been even longer, given the wealth of excellent material that ended up on the cutting room floor.

“When we submitted it to Sundance, it was three hours, 26 minutes long,” he said, “although I told them it was going to get shorter.”

Upon its release, Hoop Dreams was bizarrely snubbed for an Academy Award nomination, but what of The Interrupters? Is it too soon for talk of Oscar gold? Not in this author’s opinion. The film has already picked up a Miami Film Festival gong for best doc, and will no doubt win more across the year. Deservedly so – The Interrupters is a tour-de-force.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.