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Early in The Interrupters, an epidemiologist matter-of-factly states that violence is a disease. He makes a strong case, noting that like a disease, the best way to stop violence is by changing a population’s behavior. Still, the scientist is a secondary player in this documentary, directed by Steve James. Simply put, James records fearless members of the group CeaseFire as they try to stop young people from killing each other. His film is set in Chicago, but the problem does not end in one city.

Following the interrupters for a year, James records powerful, heartbreaking footage of an urban culture where simple disputes can have heartbreaking consequences. The murder of Derrion Albert, which was caught on film and later caught international attention, is the symbol of how widespread and systemic this epidemic has become. The movie can be difficult to watch – there are scenes where families grieve with dignity and others where young people lash out in chaotic ways – yet that is the source of the film’s power. Over the course of its two and a half hour running time, we get to know a few of the interrupters, all former gang members.

There is Eddie, who served time for murder and now helps schoolchildren express themselves through art. Tio, once a drug dealer, now has a master’s degree and reunites two brothers who are members of rival gangs. The most memorable, I think, is Ameena, the daughter of infamous Chicago gangster Jeff Fort. Ameena may have converted to Islam, but she is able to speak to these kids in a way they understand. She develops a rapport with a troubled girl, and their relationship is wrenching to watch.

The remarkable thing about the interrupters is the language they use and the simplicity of their message. They never report any activity to police, and at times, actually condone gang membership. Because they’re from the street, they can communicate with these young people and understand why they feel violence is the only answer. With simple conservation, they offer crucial pauses so that anger subsists, giving way to pause and reflection. Their technique can be remarkably effective.

Disputes are mostly over pride and territory; James convincingly makes the case these people turn to violence because it is the easiest way for them to validate their existence.  Whenever we hear gang members attempt to justify their action, James does not flinch away from how pathetic it sounds. But there is empathy and heartbreak as James’ subjects let their guard down. In their attempts to reform their lives, some young people are more successful than others, and we feel how hard it is to reverse their path when there are so few opportunities.

Midway through The Interrupters, Tio visits a man nicknamed Flamo. His bloodlust and mania are disturbing, and I wondered whether Tio/James felt they were in danger. During that first scene, I plainly thought there was no hope for Flamo. Still, as the film winds down, James makes a case for reformation in a way I did not expect. But for every sliver of hope, there is another funeral, another impromptu memorial of stuffed animals, another wasted life. This is one of the year’s most important films.