Northwestern professor’s documentary ‘Interrupters’ wins award

Sammy Caiola

Medill lecturer Alex Kotlowitz’s 2011 film “The Interrupters” won the Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking at the Jan. 11 Cinema Eye Honors.

The film, which fused nonfiction writing and documentary filmmaking to shed light on Chicago violence, is also one of five films nominated for the Independent Spirit Awards, the winners of which will be announced Feb. 25.

Kotlowitz, co-producer and filmmaker, is a writer in residence at Northwestern’s Center for the Writing Arts and currently teaches a nonfiction course for Medill students. He said the Cinema Eye award is particularly special because it comes from the documentary community.

“There’s nothing nicer than to be honored by your peers,” Kotlowitz said. “For me, it’s just been the response to the film that has been so rewarding. That has been the sheer joy over the past year.”

The film follows three individuals who formerly committed illegal acts but now work with a non-profit organization called CeaseFire to “interrupt” violence in their communities.

Kotlowitz wrote about the organization for The New York Times Magazine and later approached longtime friend Steve James about putting the story to film, he said.

Kotlowitz has written several books and has written articles for The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. Though he has worked with radio, he said filmmaking is an entirely different experience because it is collaborative.

“One of the things I love about it is that so much of my writing time is spent by myself, but film is by nature a collaborative experience,” Kotlowitz said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun working on a project.”

“The Interrupters” will be shown on the PBS show “Frontline” on Feb. 14 as part of a two-hour special. An on-campus screening of the documentary earlier this quarter drew more than 200 people and filled the Block Cinema in the Block Museum of Art, said Stacy Oliver, assistant director of the Center for the Writing Arts.

The event, hosted by the Center for the Writing Arts, Medill and Block Museum, was free for students and featured a Q-and-A session with Kotlowitz and one of the film’s three principal characters. Oliver said the documentary was screened because it showcases a writer in residence and leaves students with an important message.

“There’s a world out there where people need help, and it shines a light on one area that maybe we have a tendency to forget or put away,” Oliver said. “When there’s a break in the community, it affects everyone.”

Jane Jones, a McCormick sophomore who watched “The Interrupters,” said she knew very little about gang violence before seeing the film but now has “a better understanding of what it is, where it takes place and how widespread it is.”

Although NU students live in the suburb of Evanston, they could still be impacted by the violence in Chicago, she added.

“It’s affecting us – where we go and how we look at people,” Jones said. “We know there are people out there who don’t care who we are, who walk around armed and angry. Considering our proximity, it’s scary.”

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