A Conversation with Alex Kotlowitz

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 9, 2011 7:00PM

2011_08_interrupters.jpg Alex Kotlowitz earned his bona fides twenty years ago when his book There Are No Children Here, about two brothers growing up in Chicago's Henry Horner Homes, gobbled up awards and praise. Nonfiction books about inner city problems don't sell over half a million copies and end up as TV movies starring Oprah Winfrey unless they strike a decidedly major chord with readers. Kotlowitz's subsequent books such as The Other Side of the River and Never a City So Real continued to explore the issue of race and the city of Chicago.

The Interrupters, Kotlowitz's film collaboration with Hoop Dreams director Steve James, expands on an exploration of CeaseFire's Violence Interrupters program which he initiated for a magazine article in 2008. We spoke to him about two decades spent looking into the city's most vexing problems, the differences between writing and making movies, the neighborhoods President Obama's message of hope and change never seem to impact, and more. (Ed. Note: Please go back and read Steven's interview with Steve James, as well. — CS)

Chicagoist: How did the Friends and Family screening go? What was that like?

Alex Kotlowitz: It was a blast. We had all these people who were involved with the making of the film - the core team, people from Kartemquin, and then all of these people who were in the film, some of whom had not seen it. I've got to say I was a little anxious. One of the things that's been different for me about this film business from writing is that people read my books, and if they don't like it then basically I don't hear from them, but when you're in a theater and you're watching it with everybody, you can sense people's responses and it was just a really lively, vital crowd. I mean they laughed and cried. I was really moved, Derrion Albert's mom, Anjanette, came and I talked to her afterwards and she was clearly moved by the film. The family of Vanessa, the young girl at the end of the movie who lost their son who's out at the cemetery every day, saw it for the first time and I was really anxious about that. That's got to be hard and they really embraced the film.

C: It's interesting when you're watching the movie, the Derrion Albert murder occurs. Did that happen very soon after you started shooting, or just before?

AK: It happened after we started shooting. We started that spring, March or April (2009): kind of getting geared up. And really that summer is when we really began, then the Derrion Albert thing happened in September, so very early on in the filming. For me - I can't speak for Steve - it kind of threw me off a little bit. Here we were out in these neighborhoods, kind of by ourselves, trying to pay attention to this problem that nobody was thinking about. Then suddenly Derrion Albert happens and you get not just national (press) but this world attention to the violence in the city. You don't know if it's going to last. I mean, this has happened before. In the mid-nineties we had two very high profile killings of young kids. One made the cover of Time magazine and the other was on the front page of the New York Times. One was the story of Yummy Sandifer, this kid who was executed. The other was the story of Eric Morse, a boy who was dropped from the 13th floor of a public housing high-rise. Again, all this attention focused on the city, on the issue, and as happens so often, it doesn't last. The Derrion Albert one was a little different in that there was that video that gave it some staying power. It reaffirmed for Steve and myself that we were onto something, that we were in the right place and, as it happens, at the right time.

C: As someone who has this perspective of looking at this issue over a long time, does this sort of punctuated amount of attention make it better or does it just keep happening?

AK: What happens is there's all this media focus, as there should be, and all this rumination has very little sustenance. It doesn't continue. It happened in the nineties and it's happening now. Having said that, I will say that when I started working on There Are No Children Here, it was right on the cusp of the crack epidemic in Chicago. The murder rate was beginning to soar. At its height, which was 1991, there were, I believe, 950 homicides in the city. It's now roughly half that. The thing that I don't fully understand is that it doesn't feel that way. It feels just as intense, just as profound, just as ubiquitous as it did back then. What you hear, and I don't know whether it's true or not, is in some ways what has happened is the violence has become more random. So a lot more--I say innocent people but who isn't innocent?--but a lot of people who are not at all involved in the disputes are getting shot.

C: How has your appreciation or understanding of Slutkin's theories and the CeaseFire project has changed over the course of this project?

AK: Let me tell you first what drew me in when I was first doing a magazine piece. For one thing, it just offered a fresh prism to look at the violence. To think about it as an infectious disease was really provocative. What I really appreciated is that it completely took the moral judgement out of the equation. There were no good and bad people. And also you began to think of violence as a matter of behavior and as a matter of public health.

One of my concerns I've talked to Gary about, and you see this in the film, is that - at least the way the project is set up now - it doesn't address, even rhetorically, the conditions in these communities. One of the things that's pretty sobering is I look at these communities in comparison to twenty years ago and it doesn't feel like a whole lot has changed: struggling schools, really crappy housing, and the foreclosure crisis has hit these communities hard. Lack of jobs. The analogy I draw, one that Gary always uses, is cholera, and he dealt with cholera in Somalian refugee camps.

One of the things they had to do was go out and change people's behavior, do what was counter-intuitive, and give people liquids. Rather than encouraging them not to drink, hydrate them. The other part of it is if you're working on cholera you're also going out and changing the conditions. You've got to provide clean drinking water, otherwise people are going to get sick all over again. I'm not saying CeaseFire needs to address these issues, but they gave it a rhetorical presence and fully embraced what others are doing and recognized the importance vis-a-vis the violence. One thing I admire about somebody like Gary and about CeaseFire is there's an admirable blindness to them. They are so directly targeted on the violence they don't care about anything else. There's something to be said for that.

C: The resolutely pragmatic approach of focusing on the contagion of violence also depends a hopeful outlook for the individual’s future.

AK: And the Interrupters are living examples of that. If you had met them, or I had met them, twenty years ago I suspect I probably would have turned and walked the other way. What's more, if I knew anything about their lives I would have thought these were lost causes and would have thrown my hands up. Now look at them and where they are, having now believed in themselves, believing in others. Flamo is kind of what you imagine of young men in these communities, filled with this anger, this fury, this rage, and intent on payback. Over the course of the film we see something very different. It reminds me of when this great Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie talks about the danger of the single narrative. She means that you think you know somebody because of who they are or their circumstance, and once you get to know them you realize you knew nothing at all.

C: How did the process of going out with a camera crew, and Steve and Zak, over 14 months, compare with researching and writing a book?

AK: The major difference is my writing life is very solitary. Solitary on both ends. Obviously, it's solitary when I sit down to write, but also when I'm going out reporting on something, it's just me. I was in southern Missouri reporting on something, and I had a great time, but it was just myself. Film by its nature is incredibly collaborative and there was something exhilarating about that. I had a great time with Steve and Zak, but what also made it great was hanging out with Cobe, Eddie and Ameena. I used to call my wife periodically when we were going to shoot to let her know what's going on, and we'd be in the van laughing, and she'd say "What's going on there?" Those were a great fourteen months.

I've done some TV before, and so I worried about two things. I worried about achieving the kind of intimacy to which I'm accustomed and I think Steve's accustomed to. I chide Steve and tell him he's got the sensibility of a writer. I've been on shoots in previous projects where we've had these enormously large film crews. I remember with Frontline we at one point had seven people walk into somebody's apartment. It was like having a party. Very early on we talked about how to keep it pretty small and, in fact, I had suggested to Steve he shoot so that we could keep it to three people. I even unsuccessfully tried to learn sound. There's one scene of mine in the movie but that's it: I confess that I didn't do very well. The other thing is that so many documentary films, especially television, is they pre-interview people and by the time you sit down with somebody, the interview is incredibly stale and short. We interviewed people on the fly, and that felt like what I do as a writer. We're not landscape artists. We're not there to sit back and record things, we're there to engage with people. We would interview people right after an event happened, sometimes in the midst if there was a break, to get the reflections in the moment and then sit down with them later for what ended up being these marathon interview sessions, sometimes half a day.

I don't know if it's the way I'm wired of that I'm so accustomed to writing, but the thing I struggled with the most, if I had to be brutally honest with myself, was when we were in the editing room I always had to re-orient myself. When looking at a scene I would have to remind myself what preceded it and what followed it. When I write, it's all held up there, I can imagine it chapter by chapter, scene by scene.

C: So during these 14 months, these probably are not 8-hour days.

AK: We were on call pretty much all the time. We made a point of sleeping with our cell phones by our bed. Usually one of us would get the call and call the other. My wife used to chide me when I'd get calls late at night, and say "You know, you're not an emergency room doctor." Sometimes we'd get a call and I'd say "I don't know if it's worth going out for this one," or Steve might say that, and the other one would say to err on the other side on the other side of caution. And we would.

C: How do the Interrupters keep their ears to the ground and detect these conflicts?

AK: The streets talk, in some ways. I mean, not literally. Flamo, while he was still sober, calls Cobe. They met years ago in the county jail and heard about what Cobe was doing. Part of Flamo wanted somebody to talk him off of that ledge. By the time Cobe gets there with us in tow, Flamo is drunk. Whatever reason he called Cobe about is long gone. One thing you don't see, that was cut out, is at one point he gets on the phone and somebody is delivering him a car without license plates so he can take care of his business. He's quite serious about it. So there's that. Word gets out. One of the operating assumptions of CeaseFire is, all things considered, most people would rather not shoot somebody, and find another way out. The other thing is they just get calls and hear about disputes. Sometimes they'll get a call from an institution like a school, or get a call involved with one of the cliques or a friend of a friend who'll say you need to get out here, something is going down. I'm also amazed at the number of times they happen upon a situation that they end up intervening in.

C: I felt like there was a difference in the way that the Latino neighborhoods and the community filmed

AK: In the black community, the hierarchy of the gangs has pretty much fallen apart in recent years. In fact, you hear in the movie they refer to gangs as cliques, because it's often one group on one block and another on another street, and they may even be members of rival gangs who are together.

C: How did that happen?

AK: It's a good question. I don't have an answer. I would guess because so many went off to prison. But the Latino gangs are still very hierarchical. So, with Eddie, when we began filming him in Little Village, we filmed a remarkable scene. When he committed his murder, he did it for a fellow gang member who was shot and paralyzed, and that guy is still on the street, still a member of the gang. I think he's in his 40s now I think. We filmed a scene out by a park in Little Village, in which Eddie is trying to say to him, "Look what I've done with my life. Why are you still on the street?" We filmed it so we didn't show his face and we didn't show his tattoos, but afterwards Eddie got word from one of the Latino gangs that they didn't want us filming out there. I think it's partly they want complete control over their members. Eddie made a real strong case to this guy. Steve and I, naively, said "Would it make sense if we went to go talk to him?" and he laughed and said "I don't think that's a good idea." They keep very tight rein on their members. We didn't end up filming a lot with Eddie in the street. We were kind of limited.

C: This is probably too broad a question to be a fair one. How are things regarding violence in the city. You've addressed this a little, but it's 2011, which way are we going? Up, down or sideways?

AK: You know, it's hard to tell. I worry a little bit that we've been there and done that. One of the things the film touches on that is pretty profound in these communities and we don't really address often is the impact that violence has on people's lives. You see that most notably with Vanessa's family. This is a family that lost a 13 year-old boy and they're out there in the cemetery every single day. In fact there's that moment at the end of the film when they're actually barbecuing dinner [in the cemetery]. You learn at the end that Vanessa, this incredibly petite, gentle girl, has gotten into a fight at school and you know that it has everything to do with the loss of her brother. I don't feel that we've at all tangled with that.

One of the things I really admire about Eddie is he really knows what it has done to him. His brothers are both Iraq war veterans. One of them, in particular, suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Eddie saw a lot of himself in what his brother was going through, and vice-versa. It's what kind of reconnected him in some ways. He's brought together a group of moms who have lost kids in the community. He's bringing together war veterans with inner city kids, and doing amazing, important work. We have a long way to go. The violence just absolutely devastates these communities. Gary speaks to this and he's right, but as long as violence is there there's very little else you can do. It's why he justifies simply targeting the violence at the expense of everything else.

C: Right. But even if you can address this one aspect, the other factors which are suspension are all trending downwards. The schools are broke, unemployment is rising, etc.

AK: It's kind of this tautological problem. It is tough. I would argue you have to find a way to fortify community; one of the ways is by targeting the violence. And then you've got to create opportunity by changing the conditions in these neighborhoods. If people don't have opportunity and don't have hope, there isn't much you can do. I'm convinced we have to work on both fronts with full thrust.

C: The networks these Interrupters draw on indicate there are still community ties.

AK: There are but I feel like it's a mixed bag. There's also a lot of distrust. Not only of outsiders, but also of each other. How could there not be? You're in a community where you worry about the safety of your children, so you begin to distrust people. I feel these communities are not as close and tight as some would like to imagine, and they're not as completely unbound as others would like to imagine. It's a much more complicated equation. One of the things these interrupters bring back to the communities is trust. You know you can trust Cobe Williams. You know you can trust Ameena Matthews. You know you can trust Eddie Bocanegra.

C: You wrote your article in '08, and you started filming in '09. Was the sense of optimism and hope that I naively recall from that time in Chicago something you encountered at all?

AK: To be honest with you, it never came up. Except in that one moment with Spencer Lee, pointing out this paradox the paradox that on the one hand we've made this great advancement, elected a black man president, and who ever thought we'd achieve that in our lifetimes? Yet on the other hand, as he says, "I'm still burying black kids, something is not right here." I mean, I know how I felt and I can only imagine how people on the south side must have felt.

C: And yet you talked to hundreds of people for hundreds and hundreds of hours in 2009 whether you ever encountered that.

AK: We didn't actually. It's interesting that you ask that question and it really did not come up.

C: Part of the reason I ask is that right now Grant Park in 2008 seems so far away, and I wondered if that feeling was shared, did it have an impact on people's outlook about the most existential questions, thinking it probably did not.

AK: Right and to be fair, two things. One - despite my excitement over Obama's election, and others' excitement, the issues of these communities was not a part of the public conversation in that political campaign. The other thing is at that same time, the economy just collapsed and it was these neighborhoods that in the end were hit the hardest.

C: Did this give you an appetite for more film work?

AK: I'm champing at the bit to get back to my writing. I mean, I had a great time working on the film, don't get me wrong. I realized I'm most alive when I'm writing and I want to find my work back there. Steve and I would like to do something together in the dramatic realm, but I don't think I'm going to find my way back to film any time real soon.

The Interrupters opens in Chicago Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Tickets are available online.