Peacekeepers on tough Chicago streets

Interrupter Ameena Matthews, daughter of a Chicago gang leader. She had mixed success in trying to break through to an angry teenager.

The Interrupters is an intense and chilling documentary about peacekeeping troops in a war zone. The zone comprises the most dangerous streets of Chicago, and the troops are former gangbangers who put their bodies on the line attempting to stop the killings.

The peacekeepers work in shattered neighborhoods where, as a narrator says early in the film, "12- and 13-year-olds are walking around with bulletproof vests under their clothes." Makeshift memorials to gang victims are a common sight.

The interrupters work for CeaseFire, a Chicago organization that is the brainchild of epidemiologist Dr. Gary Slutkin, who believes street violence can be likened to infectious diseases and treated through programmatic interventions. However you may feel about that analogy, it's hard to question the courage of the interrupters, or to argue with their achievements.

The interrupters were the subject of a 2008 New York Times Magazine article by Alex Kotlowitz, who coproduced the movie along with director Steve James, who made the excellent Hoop Dreams in 1994.

James deserves credit for not trying to oversell the program - by no means is every intervention successful, and we even briefly visit an interrupter hospitalized after being shot for his efforts.

In fact, the interrupters have no illusions that they can do much to reduce gang membership. Their goal is strictly to try to stop the fatalities, often by putting themselves in harm's way. They also offer preventive medicine, by talking to at-risk youths or attending victims' wakes or funerals.

The most compelling of the three interrupters profiled here is Ameena Matthews, a fearless young woman who is the daughter of the notorious Chicago gang leader Jeff Fort and a former outlaw herself. Among the most moving scenes are Matthews' continuing hit-and-miss attempts to break through to an angry teenager named Caprysha.

The other highlighted interrupters are Cobe Williams, a genial man who served time for drug trafficking and attempted murder, and Eddie Bocanegra, who spent years incarcerated for a retaliatory slaying he committed at 17. In one haunting moment, Bocanegra laments the dismaying number of killings that have taken place on a single street.

The film might have gained in force if James had devoted full segments to each of the three principals in place of the chronological framework he uses. This is quibbling, given the strength of his material.