It remains one of the biggest shocks in the history of the Academy Awards, but when basketball epic Hoop Dreams was snubbed by the Oscars for a nomination in the best documentary feature category 17 years ago, the non-fiction community was practically united in disbelief.
But while most filmmakers would consider themselves lucky to be involved in as groundbreaking an undertaking even once, and resign themselves to their moment having passed, director Steve James could soon see his infamous snub redressed, thanks to his latest effort The Interrupters.
The film, made by James with author-producer Alex Kotlowitz through Kartemquin Films, is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking, revealing compelling and complex lead subjects while simultaneously painting a broader portrait of working-class American society.
And while the doc was not as demanding a shoot as Hoop Dreams – which famously took nearly seven years (including editing) to make – the film is every bit as powerful and intriguing.
The documentary saw James and his crew spend 14 months embedded with members of Chicago-based not-for-profit organization CeaseFire, an inner-city community response group which attempts to stop violent street confrontations before they turn into fatalities. And in a town that can sometimes see as many as 20 shootings in a single night, this is no small feat.
The film is noteworthy for exploring the causes and effects of street violence, as well as for showing scenes of actual conflict, and has garnered much praise at its initial screenings at Sundance, Hot Docs and South By Southwest.
“One of the things we talked about early was that we were not trying to do a reality TV show,” says James. “The goal wasn’t to have an endless string of mediations and just be in the streets with the constant drama of a mediation going on – we both wanted to do a film that would hopefully dig deeper into understanding how and why things happen, to try and dig into and understand the violence, the frustrations, and the underlying social and economic realities that are at work.”
The film came about after James fell into talks with Kotlowitz, a longtime friend, when the latter penned an article about CeaseFire for The New York Times Magazine. The two decided to produce a film based around the article, although access initially proved difficult.
“Access was a constant hurdle that we had to overcome,” says James, “and part of that was getting to a place of trust with the subjects so that they felt comfortable with putting us in situations where, when they asked us to step away, we wouldn’t want to argue about it and we would follow their lead.”
While gang members aren’t generally known for taking kindly to outsiders, particularly those with cameras, James says that he was able to use the cachet of some of his past films to good effect.
“My background in films and documentaries definitely helped and was useful at times, in particular with Cobe Williams [one of the film's central characters],” he explains. “If there were situations where he sensed that it would help to mention Hoop Dreams then he would, or he would mention Alex’s book [the U.S. bestseller There Are No Children Here]. In addition, I had just finished a film for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series on Allen Iverson, and a surprising number of people we came across had either seen that or knew about it because they watched ESPN.
“So he was really smart about occasionally dropping things like that in a situation, which not only gave us cachet in a sense, but also put people at ease without him having to explicitly say that we were not cops and that this was not some kind of sting operation or some crazy thing.”
James adds that the other major hurdle the team faced was “not so much in production, but in thinking how we were going to tell this [story], because it was not going to be a simple narrative of someone following someone else around filming their life. It wasn’t like Hoop Dreams where we had this built-in narrative of always following these two kids over the course of several years.”
Funding for the doc came from a variety of sources, beginning with a pitch to commissioners at the IDFA Forum in Amsterdam back in 2008. “We did our pitch and ITVS really responded,” James recalls. “It was [VP of programming] Claire Aguilar at ITVS who said this might be a good thing to partner with Frontline on, so we approached them with her having paved the way and they responded.”
With the PBS series onboard, a range of other partners soon followed, including the Sundance Documentary Fund, and broadcasters such as BBC ‘Storyville,’ Denmark’s DRTV, Canada’s CBC, Norway’s NRK and Holland’s VPRO.
“Much later in the project we got a substantial grant from the MacArthur Foundation here in Chicago, which was a real lifesaver,” James adds. “We were fortunate because we were able to secure some substantial funding upfront with very little shot to really get going, and then along the way got more funding as it developed.”
The filmmaker reflects that, rather than it being a harder market for documentary filmmakers, it’s an inconsistent one. “If you talk to 10 different documentary makers, you’ll get 10 different answers,” he says.
“There are times when I believe that it’s really getting harder and I talk to fellow filmmakers who say that they feel it is getting harder, but a lot of it just has to do with a given project and whether people respond to it.
“I’ve been on both ends of that,” he adds. “With Stevie, the documentary I made right after Hoop Dreams, I couldn’t get a single American broadcaster to give me money for the film – not one.”
The initial response to The Interrupters has been universal acclaim, with the film notably winning the best documentary award at the Miami International Film Festival earlier this year. The only major criticism thus far has been that, like Hoop Dreams, this is a very long film, with a 142-minute running time that may prove to be a barrier to a wider audience. And this is after its original 164-minute run time was cut down for its U.S. theatrical run, which The Cinema Guild will oversee later this summer.
“I’m always a little envious of other filmmakers – and it’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek but not completely – when I see their work and think, ‘Why can’t I come up with an idea where you go out and shoot for a month and you’re done?’” says James, laughing.
Nevertheless, he insists that the film could not have been any shorter than it has ended up being, without losing some of its impact.
“One of the great things documentaries can do is show viewers people they think they know from other media – the stereotypes that they have about people who live in inner cities, who have been violent in some way – and then turn those very types on end to show that people are much more complicated than that,” James reflects.
“That’s one of the drugs of making documentaries – I constantly have that happening to me. And if I can convey that to an audience, it’s all the better.”