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"The Interrupters," "Iron Crows" and More Docs

A quick overview of new documentaries from Steve James, Bong-Nam Park and more.

Following scans of the documentary lineups for the upcoming Toronto and New York film festivals, let's glance at a few docs in theaters right now. Melissa Anderson in the Voice: "Inspired by a 2008 New York Times Magazine article by Alex Kotlowitz, Steve James's commanding documentary The Interrupters, about 'violence interrupters' in Chicago, who intervene in conflicts before they escalate into gunshots, unfolds as deeply reported journalism. Much like Hoop Dreams (1994), James's in-depth examination of the athletic aspirations of two African-American high school students, The Interrupters reminds us of the powers and pleasures of well-crafted, immersive nonfiction filmmaking — a genre vitiated within the past five years by a glut of cruddy-looking, poorly researched and argued titles."

The Interrupters has left New York [no, it hasn't! It's at the IFC Center through Tuesday — thanks, Thor!], but its cross-country tour extends into November. It opened last week in the UK, where more than a few reviewers noted the film's relevance to the recent London riots; and it's got a few more days left in its hometown. As Andrea Gronvall explains in the Chicago Reader, "Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois-Chicago, spent a decade in Africa fighting cholera, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS before returning to the US and founding the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention, the parent organization of CeaseFire. Slutkin's central insight has been to approach street violence like an infectious disease, one that can be treated by identifying the source of outbreak and intervening before the infection spreads. For him there are no good or bad people, just healthy or unhealthy people; violence is unhealthy behavior, but behavior can be changed." Also in the Reader, Deanna Isaacs talks with James and Kotlowitz.

"The Interrupters captures an ethos of the inner city that we've seen before," writes Leonard Quart in Dissent. "But Steve James has made the film with consummate honesty; one senses nothing theatrical or artificial on screen." Let me also recommend watching Xan Brooks's three-minute review for the Guardian. Earlier: a few reviews from Sundance.

Update, 8/31: "The Interrupters makes a powerful case against the inevitability of hopelessness turning into violence," writes Dennis Harvey in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. "The program has even seen former perps transformed to the point of returning to the scene of a crime in order to apologize. Rage is blinding; CeaseFire and its mediators prove there's nothing like taking a step back and a clear-eyed look at oneself to achieve peace in near-impossible circumstances. 'Community, heal thyself' may well have to become the American mantra of the near future, because you know the Tea Party wouldn't mind in the least letting certain groups self-destruct."


"The huge container ships and tankers that cross the world's oceans are crucial to the functioning of the global consumer economy, and yet they are also curiously marginal to our perception of the world," writes AO Scott in the New York Times. "Many of us take for granted the goods they transport, and perhaps we think about how those goods reached us only when we fly over a major port city and catch sight of maritime giants docked under the cranes in the harbor. Where do those ships go when they have outlasted their usefulness? That strange, fascinating question is at the heart of Iron Crows, a startlingly beautiful documentary by Bong-Nam Park that is also devastatingly sad."

It's "mostly a you-are-there kind of documentary, watching silently as these men haul slop, wield blowtorches, and dodge falling iron," writes Noel Murray at the AV Club. "But Park also takes a closer look at a few of the workers: the jaded middle-aged cutter who's grateful for his lot in life; the young husband who's been in the yards for a decade but is just starting to realize what he's signed up for; and the teenager willing to do anything for a hot meal. Iron Crows probes their wounds and examines their homesickness, but also listens as they sing and crack jokes with their ship-breaking brothers. It's this latter point that makes Iron Crows a little richer than the usual 'gawk at the horrors of economic exploitation' doc."

Writing for Slant, Joseph Jon Lanthier disagrees, arguing that "Iron Crows is ultimately third-world documentary filmmaking at its most exploitatively surface-groping." More from Nick Pinkerton (Voice) and Keith Uhlich (Time Out New York, 4/5).



"During El Salvador's 1980 - 1992 civil war, a group of guerilla fighters lived in a remote mountain region called Cinquera, where they had to hide in bat-infested caves and just pray that a child's cry wouldn't blow their cover." Diego Costa in Slant: "If it did, they might get maimed, raped, or killed off by the United States-backed Salvadorian military. The Tiniest Place tells the story of those who survived, as Salvadorian-born and Mexican-raised filmmaker Tatiana Huerzo transforms collective trauma into chilling poetry."

"Brimming over with outrage not so much at the eponymous Ponzi schemer as against the government body that failed to rein him in, Chasing Madoff documents whistleblower Harry Markopolos's futile 10-year effort to get the SEC to listen to his case against the world's most notorious financier." Andrew Schenker in the Voice: "Jeff Prosserman's film paints an arresting portrait of financial corruption so widespread that it infiltrates vast international networks, governmental regulatory bodies, and the US media…. Too bad Prosserman can't trust his material." His "fast-cut sequences prove disastrously distracting and — in the juxtaposition of a subject uttering 'This is explosive' with a shot of a match being struck — thuddingly literal-minded." More from Nick Schager (Slant, 1.5/4).

Bill Weber in Slant on Jeff Warrick's Programming the Nation?: "A wandering commitment to the topic and shortage of hard evidence about the scale of subliminal communication undermines the film's integrity, and makes this buffet of paranoia easy to dismiss for lack of relevance." The AV Club's Noel Murray gives it a C-.

Justin Frimmer's Born and Bred "bungles a promising subject with an overreliance on suspiciously on-the-nose, thesis-spouting talking heads," argues Chuck Bowen in Slant. "The documentary, which follows a number of young Latino boxers and trainers in Los Angeles, barely allows us to see the obvious draw of the subject matter: the children actually boxing."

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The Interrupters has not left New York yet! Still screening there at IFC Center until Tuesday!
Many thanks, Thor — I’ve made the correction!

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