TORONTO — There have been moments over the course of Oscar-nominated filmmaker Steve James’ long career when he didn’t welcome being identified simply as the director of Hoop Dreams.
After all, while that basketball documentary is still held in impossibly high regard, it was released 17 years ago and James has pursued several other projects since.
But when it comes to The Interrupters — his acclaimed new documentary about a few brave souls crusading to curb inner-city violence — James understands that viewers may find memories of Dreams recurring, and he doesn’t mind.
“I welcome it in this case because for the most part, it’s been a very positive comparison,’’ the director said during an interview in Toronto this week.
“I do feel like (the films) are kindred spirits in a lot of ways…. They’re very different films but they also share some of the same sensibilities (and) concerns for the same issues if you want to call it that…. The audience comes away feeling that they’ve been transported in a way and feeling moved and shaken.’’
“I mean, the Hoop Dreams comparison I get with virtually every film I make to some degree … and sometimes I wish it weren’t the case because you know, I’ve made a lot of other films. But in this case, I think it’s a good thing.’’
Perhaps it also helped that having Hoops’ on his resume solidified James’ street credibility during an often-taxing year-long shoot.
The Interrupters focuses on a street-level violence prevention program called CeaseFire, which aims to defy the tide of bloodshed on Chicago streets through conflict mediation.
The film gets its title from a cluster of courageous souls who put themselves directly in harm’s way to perform those mediations, trying to defuse volatile situations with words, gentle physical gestures or, at times, sheer force of will.
Inspired by a New York Times article by James’ production partner Alex Kotlowitz, the documentary dials in on three disparate personalities who have become adept at de-escalating these streetside conflicts: Eddie Bocanegra, a soft-spoken man who served time for murder but now tries to inspire hard-luck youth through art; Ameena Matthews, the fearless daughter of infamous former Chicago gangleader Jeff Fort; and Cobe Williams, an unimposing big-brother type with an even-keeled, calm demeanour that soothes dangerous situations.
Williams made a habit of keeping James and his small team — which was rounded out by Kotlowitz and co-producer Zak Piper, with James filming the material himself — in the loop on any developing conflicts, even if it meant rousing the filmmakers from bed with a midnight phone call.
He also helped ingratiate the documentarians — whom he introduced as “his film crew’’ — with their subjects by reminding them that James directed Hoop Dreams, which focused on citizens of the same inner-city Chicago streets as Interrupters.
“Cobe was brilliant with that,’’ James said. “If he was meeting with some resistance, he would say: ‘You ever see Hoop Dreams?’”
And like the gutsy interrupters, James and his crew found themselves steering into harm’s way again and again in pursuit of their story.
At one point in the film, Matthews — a reformed gang member and married mother of four whose confrontational style commands the respect of even the most hardened gangsters — thrusts herself in the middle of a messy conflict, in which several overwrought individuals are circling like a carousel, with one particularly distressed person brandishing a butcher’s knife. She successfully keeps the peace.
The film — which will begin screening in Toronto and Vancouver on Friday, before expanding to Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Sydney, N.S., over the coming months — also introduces Flamo, a colourful character seemingly torn straight from the HBO series The Wire. James says Flamo’s erratic presence has become a source of amusement for audiences, even though he seems genuinely unstable.
In his first scene in the film, Flamo bursts out of his house, throws his cellphone into the snow and launches a vitriolic rant about his plans to exact revenge on a nemesis who he believes sent police to his house. Williams eventually persuades Flamo to put his gun away and join him for a meal, and his attempt to reform Flamo becomes one of the film’s main narrative arcs.
Tense moments like that one abound, and given that the film also depicts a tearful hospital visit to an interrupter who has been shot twice while trying to halt a conflict, there were reminders everywhere that the filmmakers themselves might have been risking their own well-being in making the movie.
While some of the material is heartbreaking — for instance, a child explaining how a stray bullet once tore through his body, then impishly showing off the vibrant socks he’s wearing — James says that it wasn’t intended to be a depressing film.
He says that he’s received a handful of requests each day from people or organizations who want to get involved with CeaseFire or who want to make a difference in their own communities.