Zak Piper: Giving “The Interrupters” a Voice

This Thursday, a film screening of “The Interrupters,” a documentary on workers who prevent gun violence in Chicago, will take place in Pruyne Lecture Hall at 8 p.m. Co-sponsored by Careers in Education Professions, Black Students Union, the EDU, the Department of Film and Media Studies and the Amherst College Entrepreneurs Society, the event will feature Co-Producer Zak Piper and Ricardo “Cole” Williams, one of the three violence “interrupters” (along with Eddie Bocanegra and Ameena Matthews) whose life and work in their crime-ridden communities form the focus of the documentary. Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, the film has received wide critical acclaim and garnered “Best Documentary” awards from the 2011 Miami International Film Festival and the 2012 Independent Spirit Awards. It’s even reached beyond the cinematic: Williams’s stories have inspired the Bermuda government to develop its own version of CeaseFire, the program that employs outreach workers and conflict mediators like Williams. A few days ago, I interviewed Piper via email to find out his experience co-producing the film and working with the interrupters and how a family tradition has guided his career.

How did you discover and become involved with the work?

When work on the film began, I had been Head of Production at Kartemquin Films for about seven or eight years. I had recently finished co-producing “At the Death House Door” with Steve James and Peter Gilbert when I was offered the opportunity to work on “The Interrupters.” Alex Kotlowitz, a long time friend of Steve’s, wrote a feature piece on CeaseFire (now called Cure Violence) for The New York Times Magazine, which Steve read and thought it would be a great concept for a documentary. Steve and Alex put the fundraising in motion and then brought me on board a few months later, just before the start of filming.

How was the collaboration with director Steve James and producer Alex Kotlowitz?

Working with Steve and Alex on this film was a tremendous experience. Both are the best at what they do, which made me a better producer. Alex and Steve both have a strong sense of integrity, fairness and generosity — it is easy to see how they gain access and build trust with subjects. It also carries over behind the scenes to everyone else who’s working on the film. One of the greatest strengths they share is an open-mindedness for suggestions and ideas from everyone on the filmmaking team. It’s an important lesson for filmmakers of all stripes.

Most of the films you have worked on — “At the Death House Door,” “In the Family” and “Prisoner of Her Past,” for instance — seem to deal with the ways people confront hardship and personal history. Is that a coincidence or a choice? What kinds of subjects intrigue you and why?

Nice observation. I was drawn to documentary filmmaking long ago because I was excited by the idea of going [to] places I wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to go and meeting people I wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to meet. I wanted to be exposed to people whose lives and worldview were different from mine — and to help share their stories with a larger audience. Sharing stories was an important (and entertaining) aspect of my family’s dynamic — hours upon hours of storytelling at every family get-together. Sharing stories is how my family is connected and how I connect to the rest of world.
The hook for me, though, has been working on and making films about people engaged with social issues — people trying to make a change for themselves or for others. Making these types of films is what Kartemquin Films in Chicago has done for nearly 50 years. I am fortunate to have been brought up as a filmmaker in the past 12 or 13 years by the filmmakers at Kartemquin, and in particular by Founder and Artistic Director Gordon Quinn, whom I continue to learn from regularly.

Has co-producing the film changed your view of community violence and the Violence Interrupters? If so, how?

I was fortunate to grow up in a place where gun violence didn’t exist — in a small town near Peoria, Ill. Though I’ve lived in Chicago for the past 15 or so years, I hadn’t spent much time on the west and south sides of the city, where we filmed “The Interrupters.” The experience of making this film and spending time in these communities let me meet and talk with many very resilient people who were invested in their community and who wanted to make a positive change in the neighborhoods. It was inspiring and made me feel hopeful for better days ahead.
This question reminds me of a day we were driving through the Englewood neighborhood, which is an area of the city hit especially hard by the economic downturn and mortgage crisis, probably on our way to meet up with Cobe or Ameena. We were driving down a street where nearly every home was boarded up and abandoned when we came upon a little bungalow that had a perfectly manicured lawn, colorful flowers growing in a flower bed and two flowerpots on the porch full of beautiful red flowers. The contrast between this house and its neighbors was striking — and here was a family that wasn’t giving up despite the neighborhood seemingly crumbling around them. That’s the true spirit of these communities — yet too often we only hear about what is wrong with them.

What were the most challenging aspects of producing this film?

Keeping up with Ameena’s energy was a challenge, but I think that’s a challenge for anyone who has the pleasure of meeting her!
But seriously, among other things, I quickly grew to appreciate the 24/7 schedule that the Interrupters keep, which for periods of time we kept as well. It is a special skill and a balancing act to “be on call” every day while keeping up with the rest of your life. I can’t say I have ever mastered it. It is a testament to the commitment of these men and women — the Interrupters — and to their diligence to reduce the number of shootings in the city.