Close Up with Steve James

Jane Fentress

Steve James has an uncanny ability to defy the observer effect–a force that dictates that mere observation will change the natural course of things. In his films, the director of the documentaries “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters” has been able to recede into the background and let events transpire as if a gaping camera lens were invisible.

“There is no way to test, without the camera being there, to see what would have happened.  Maybe in some alternate universe you could, but I think as a filmmaker what you try to do is spend enough time in a community so that there is a level of comfort,” he said.

In “The Interrupters,” released last year, James gave the United States an intimate and heart-wrenching portrait of one of the most violent years on Chicago’s South Side. The film takes viewers through Englewood: verdant parks, hot dog stands, people chatting on the front steps of two-flats–scenes familiar to any South Side resident. However, shrines memorializing the fallen dot curbs in front of corner stores and alongside boulevards. Bottles of Hennesy, bunches of artificial flowers and Mylar balloons pile beneath handmade posters eulogizing loved ones.

Perhaps this intimacy creates scenes that are too close for the viewer’s comfort. Shots are taken from alongside the hospital bed of a man shot in gang crossfire and alongside the casket of a murdered teenager, baseball cap and folded hands in full view.

“The stories I am attracted to are ones in which I encourage the audience to really think about the story, or someone’s life or someone’s situation and think about it from a complicated place of both trying to understand it and not judge it,” James explains.

“The Interrupters” is James’ most recent film and his sixth documentary with Chicago-based Kartemquin Films. The film follows Ceasefire, a Chicago program that hires former criminals to diffuse potentially violent scenarios in Chicago through peaceful interventions.

James was able to gain such intimate access by building unique trust with his subjects. “The people that you’re dealing with on a regular basis have to trust you,” he says. “The more people feel some sense of control over the situation, paradoxically, the more they will allow you in and give you access to things that are quite intimate.”

“You think [your momma’s] using?” violence interrupter Ameena Matthews whispers to eighteen-year-old Caprysha in the movie. The girl nods solemnly. A later cut shows Ameena and the girl at a nail salon. The camera zooms in as Caprysha admires her new neon-green manicure.

This sort of trust takes time to build.  For “The Interrupters,” James followed Ceasefire for an entire year.  For “Hoop Dreams,” James and his team spent four years following the lives of two high school boys. “When you spend months and even years with someone, there is a sort of different relationship there.”

This is to say, James has put a lot of time into his films over the years. But documentaries weren’t his original destination. “I first fell in love with movies,” James, now 57, said.  He studied radio communications at James Madison University. But a film appreciation class “really kind of sealed the deal.”

“I think documentary sort of blended both my loves: that journalistic impulse with my love of movies.  And so documentaries kinda’ became the thing I did the most.” After gaining a Master’s in communications from Southern Illinois University, James set out to make films of his own. Since 1986, James has directed over a dozen films, TV documentaries, and dramatic films.

“The Interrupters” was inspired by “There are No Children Here,” a book by journalist Alex Kotlowitz exploring the parallels between urban violence and epidemiology. Kotlowitz, incidentally, lives down the block from James in Oak Park, Illinois.  At a certain point, a light went off in James’ head.

“I called him up and I said, ‘I think you’ve really got something here that would make a great basis to do as a documentary,” recounted James. “And so we set about to pursue that.”

James works with a genre of documentary called cinema verité–French for “true cinema.”  But James acknowledges that Truth is a nuanced entity.

“Of course, in the area of truth it is ‘whose truth is it?’ My truth of observing and filming is of necessity a different truth than the people who live in those communities, even those that I am filming. I think for any kind of journalist or filmmaker you have to have an internal compass that guides you in terms of what you think is truthful and honest versus what might just be convenient or dramatic.”

The neighborhoods James investigates are regions of the city that are known for little else aside from urban blight, poverty, and violence–images perpetuated by the evening news and other popular media.

“One of the duties you have as a storyteller is to try and to anticipate the audience’s response to these people that you have documented and do your best to undermine their stereotypes while being true and honest,” he said. “I think part of the goal of making a film or writing a good story is to dig beneath those stereotypes and someone’s contradictions and complexities and present to the audience.”

Yet James acknowledged that he has his own set of stereotypes. “I sometimes need to learn the same kind of lessons over and over again. No matter where you’re from or no matter what your life has been, many of us want the same sorts of things. And that it’s easy to misjudge people when you first meet them. And I’ve done that many times.”

Yet, he says, “It’s exciting actually when your stereotypes get undermined. I think that’s one of the reasons to make films.”

James makes a special effort to get feedback from the people he films, unlike some documentary filmmakers who don’t allow subjects to see the film before it is released.  Not doing so, said James, is “not only wrongheaded but maybe cowardly.”

“I have had situations where subjects were angry about things they saw [in my film],” he admits. “But in all those cases, I came out with respect intact between us because I did what I said I would do: I faced them and heard from them and responded to them.”

James has garnered enough awards to back the currency of a small country–including a premier at Sundance, a retrospective at the International Film Festival Amsterdam, and the Independent Spirit Award for best documentary. “Hoop Dreams,” was dubbed “best film of the 1990’s” by Roger Ebert, and “The Interrupters” has received wide acclaim.

In spite of it all, James simply wishes he were a better filmmaker. “I always wish I was a better filmmaker, but, I mean, I don’t beat myself up about this.”