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Sundance 2011: A 'Hoop Dreams' director gets interrupted

January 29, 2011 |  2:24 pm

With his 1995 film "Hoop Dreams," documentary filmmaker Steve James helped turn nonfiction filmmaking into something that also appealed to popular audiences.

With his latest film, "The Interrupters," which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, James takes a look at a group of community activists in Chicago who attempt to intervene in conflicts and stop violence before it happens.

The film follows three of the violence "interrupters," who work with an organization called CeaseFire, over the course of one year. A number of mediations are caught on tape, in situations ranging from a brutal street fight to a group of teenagers haggling over $5.

But the real work of the interrupters often begins when they have backed people away from violence and they become involved in the lives of the people they encounter. Capturing both hope and heartache, the film is a far cry from the sensationalized accounts one might see, say, on a reality television show.

"There's a lot of things I hope distinguish it from reality television," said James, sitting in a Park City cafe this week with co-producer Alex Kotlowitz. "This kind of world you could clearly see a reality series being made of, but only if you can get that access. I knew from the start that we wouldn't need a million mediations to make this movie, we'd just want a few really good ones."

James and Kotlowitz have been friends for about 10 years and live just a few blocks from each other in Chicago. When James read Kotlowitz's magazine article on violence in Chicago, he was intrigued, and the two decided to collaborate on a film project. With a crew consisting of a sound recordist, James working as cameraman and Kotlowitz as producer and interviewer, they began spending time with their three main subjects, though they often didn't film anything.

"The key to this kind of filming and the key to the kind of intimate access that you see in this film is having that really strong trust and actual friendship with your subjects so that they want you around," said James.

"The Interrupters" will air on PBS' "Frontline" this year; the producers are looking for theatrical distribution. Even with a current running time of more than  2 1/2 hours -- James' films "Hoop Dreams" and "Stevie" were long too -- James is hopeful that the length won't scare away potential viewers.

"We could easily make a two-hour or less than two-hour movie out of this, and the way you would do that is drop an interrupter. Our feeling was, who are you going to drop? In the service of making something that's more commercially marketable, you would lose something we feel makes this film have a certain depth and epic quality."

-- Mark Olsen, in Park City, Utah

Photo: 'The Interrupters.' Credit: Sundance FIlm Festival 

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