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Steve James' pivotal documentary Hoop Dreams stands at the forefront of the American doc renaissance. As he arrives at TIFF to present his new film The Interrupters, we look back on his vital and urgent portraits of American life.
A decade before Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11
made the theatrical documentary into both a media event and a viable box-office attraction, Steve James' Hoop Dreams
—an epic, transfixing account of two inner-city teenagers being groomed for pro basketball stardom—had already drawn new attention to the form. Brilliantly illustrating the interconnection of some of the most crucial issues in contemporary America—race, poverty, class, education, drug addiction and street violence—Hoop Dreams
was as compelling and immersive as any fiction film (or any novel, for that matter), and the passionate response it elicited from both critics and audiences was almost unprecedented for a documentary film. Beyond this, however, its astonishing snubbing by the Academy Awards for a nomination for Best Documentary (the nomination committee reportedly turned it off after twenty minutes) led to a public outcry and an overhaul of the Academy's documentary nomination process.
A disciple of the "direct cinema" method exemplified by Allan King and Frederick Wiseman, James blends a discreetly observational approach with strongly implicit social purpose, refraining from overt commentary while at the same time pointedly indicating the contradictions, dilemmas and injustices at the heart of his subject. Yet James' films also have an immediate emotional power that distinguishes them from King and Wiseman's studied (if no less powerful) detachment. There is always a feeling of strong personal involvement in James' work, whether he is appearing onscreen as a major character in Stevie
or simply allowing his often marginalized, disadvantaged subjects the time and space to speak for themselves, eloquently, intelligently and emotionally discussing their lives and the challenges they face. James' new film The Interrupters
, which returns to the streets of inner-city Chicago to tell the story of a community activist group bravely struggling against the endless cycle of gang violence, is yet another testament to James' ability to reveal the larger social and political context of seemingly small stories, and is exactly the sort of urgent, vital filmmaking that has placed him in the forefront of America's documentary renaissance.