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Move Over Michael Moore: Is Steve James America's Most Important Documentary Director?

by Anthony Kaufman
July 29, 2011 3:38 AM
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"Hoop Dreams" may have put Steve James on the map, with its big box office returns and enduring American story that continues to land the film on top ten all-time documentary lists. But James has been under-appreciated since then, not only for his earlier work at his vital Chicago-based production house Kartemquin Films, celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, which has been making essential social documentaries since 1966's "Home for Life" and 1976's "The Chicago Maternity Center Story," but also for more recent nonfiction film tomes, such as 2004's "The New Americans" and this year's "The Interrupters," a look at stopping the cycle of violence in inner-city Chicago, which opens in theaters today in New York.

Teaching a documentary class in New York right now, I would expect the new doc feature from James to elicit some excitement from my students. But judging from their reactions, I get the feeling that the film -- which doesn't have the pizazz or marketability of a salacious, cutesy or melodramatic topic --- will face a hard time selling tickets. But marketability obviously doesn't drive James or Kartemquin Films. They are tackling important American issues with a depth, commitment and understanding that is rare in the U.S. media.

As A.O. Scott recently wrote, in a recent essay celebrating the long-form in-depth documentary: "Sometimes we need that — the discomfort of a strong, confused emotional response — more than the comforting clarity of easy conclusions."

Writing specifically about the “The Interrupters,” Scott says the film "takes a topic usually addressed on the opinion pages or the evening news, and opens it up. You don’t hear much analysis of the root causes of violence or sweeping proposals to solve the problems. Instead you spend a year at street level with people, many of them former gang members, trying to reduce the number of killings and potentially lethal fights. Something like plot emerges, with some surprising twists and turns, but Mr. James and Mr. Kotlowitz also respect the chaos of life as it happens, and never lose sight of the fragility of any attempt to impose order upon it."

I would add that the Kartemquin team also has a firm grasp of drama, of the kind of emotional resonance that all stories should have. As intelligent as the films are, they are also affecting and gripping: I think it was within just the first 10 minutes of "The Interrupters" that I felt my eyes watering.

So far, "The Interrupters" has received a perfect 100 score on Rotten Tomatoes from its critics. Will that be enough to propel audiences to see the film this weekend?

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