Ramin Bahrani’s ﬁlms are elegant paeans to everyday life. Sara Abbas talks to a director who is intent on seeing the world anew.
A telling sign of the economic status of a neighbourhood in New York City is the amount of garbage piled up on the street. It's not that poorer people produce more trash - it just gets picked up less frequently by the city's sanitation department. Willets Point, Queens is virtually a skip. This was the site of F Scott Fitzgerald's Valley of Ashes, a desolate strip, as he described it in The Great Gatsby, "where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air".
Eighty years later, this aura of decay still haunts the streets of Willets Point. Tucked away behind Shea Stadium, the home of the New York Mets, the "Iron Triangle" - as the locals call it - is a 20-block expanse of urban wilderness, crammed with warehouses, junkyards, and auto-repair shops, a vibrant community on its own, isolated from the infrastructure of the city. It takes less than an hour by subway to get to Willets Point from Manhattan, but it might as well be in another country.
This bleak landscape is the setting for Ramin Bahrani's film Chop Shop, the story of Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), a skinny but resourceful 12-year-old, unschooled but wise in the ways of the street. He spends his days working at an auto shop, running errands and jostling with grown men from rival establishments to lure cars to his garage. Alé does whatever he can to make a buck, selling sweets on the subway, hawking bootleg DVDs and charming and cajoling his way into a dizzying array of odd-jobs. At night, he climbs the stairs at the back of the auto shop to a small room with a single window overlooking the shop floor. When his 16-year-old sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales) arrives to stay with him, Alé sets her up with a job at a food van cooking meals.
In this place, dreams take the form of mundane, basic aspirations - like a beat-up vending truck Alejandro and Isamar save painstakingly to purchase, hoping to buy with it their freedom from a life of hard decisions and the vagaries of poverty. I met Bahrani at a street corner near Hunter College in Manhattan. His casual demeanour and boyish face made it hard to pick him out of the throng of students on the pavement. Bahrani's initial reserve melted quickly at the mention of my childhood in Sudan. He began telling me enthusiastically about the three "lost boys", refugees from the war in southern Sudan, who have small roles in his upcoming film. Soon, we were sitting outside a nearby café chatting about Chop Shop.
The film was showered with critical adulation when it premiered at Cannes last year, and similarly lauded during its New York run in February. But Bahrani describes it casually as "24 frames in the present." For Alé and Isamar there is neither backstory nor biography: Where did they come from? How did they get here? And where are their parents? "Who can listen to this nonsense?" Bahrani wonders, "I just want the movie to move forward." His debut film, Man Push Cart (2005), barely hinted at a backstory either; it followed Ahmad, a former Pakistani rock star turned pushcart vendor, around the city's streets, watching him cope with his wife's death in post-September 11 New York. Like Chop Shop, Man Push Cart grounds itself in the hard reality of the main character's life, rendering questions of why and whence irrelevant.
At every turn, the two films subvert the expectations of cinema audiences. Bahrani is uncompromising in his refusal to make things digestible at the expense of being believable. "Cinema is not the theatre," he explains, "at the theatre we know that it's a stage and there's some performance being put on." His method is three parts control to one part flexibility - along with a compulsion to appropriate anything that makes the moment more authentic. "You want to spend enough time and do enough preparation in your research and in your development, and then in the rehearsal, so that when you make the film you can eliminate yourself." The scenes that result are so natural they seem totally unrehearsed but, more often than not, what appears on screen represents take number 30.
Neither Alejandro nor Isamar had ever acted prior to Chop Shop, but Bahrani is eager to credit them for the film's success. The two are unrelated in real life, but they attended the same school, and he discovered a connection between them that he was eager to take advantage of - one day at school Isamar had come to the defense of Alejandro's sister when some kids were picking on her. "Alé loved Isamar already," Bahrani explains with glee.
Like Alejandro and Isamar, Ahmad Razvi was untrained when Bahrani cast him in Man Push Cart. He had, albeit briefly, worked as a push cart vendor, and he exudes such an acute loneliness that it is at times uncomfortable to watch him. But Bahrani also put Razvi in a small role in Chop Shop, as a shop owner whose brashness and confidence are in direct contrast to the character he plays in Man Push Cart. The actor's range, Bahrani says, "eliminates anyone who wants to tell me these are non-professional actors. They're non-professionally trained actors; but once they come into the film they're actors. And they're excited because everyone thinks they're really, really good, but often I'll see underhanded compliments like, 'the acting is great even if they're being themselves,' and I'm like, no they're not. Alejandro has a mom and a sister, he lives in a house and he's literate and he goes to school."
Though Chop Shop's script (written by Bahrani and his Iranian-French collaborator Bahareh Azimi) was quite detailed, Bahrani chose not to share it with the actors, preferring instead to tell them about a scene and see what they made of it. He would then return to the script and incorporate the best revelations from rehearsal. He describes one scene as a way of illustrating the relationship that developed between himself, the actors, and the script: "In the script [Alé] is supposed to say 'your shoes are fake' and then Isamar says, 'No, they're real.' She said 'No, they official.' That sounds great. So you erase 'No they're real', and you put 'No, they official' and then you tell her that."
Ask Bahrani about the line between fiction and documentary and his tone turns dismissive. To him, the only questions that matter are "Is it a good story? And do you believe it?" Bahrani spent almost a year hanging around the Iron Triangle, getting a feel for its layers and rhythms, forming the idea for Chop Shop. He noticed the young boys working in the shops, darting in and out of the corrugated gates - the inspiration for Alé's character.
Bahrani sent Alejandro to work in Rob Sowulski's garage, where Chop Shop would be filmed, and by the time shooting began Rob (who plays himself in the film) and Alejandro had developed a genuine rapport. Though Bahrani's two films are in many ways quite distinct, they share not only a concern with authenticity but also a focus on the lives of working-class immigrants so often invisible to mainstream films. His protagonists are people whose struggles are "more tangible and more real than the anxieties of the really wealthy."
Asked about his attachment to narratives centred on the experiences of immigrants, Bahrani shrugs, "I'm sure part of it has to do with my being first-generation, but more so I think I just always feel like an outsider. This immediately makes me drawn to characters who don't fit in and belong and have a comfortable situation. Of course part of my anxiety is economic; I'm making independent films; I'm not making Hollywood films; I'm not rich. But more, I just have an anxiety about existence."
Despite Bahrani's efforts at "eliminating" himself from the final cut, there is a personal flavour to his work that owes little to the streets of New York. "I have other cultures inside me and I'm lucky," he says. "I have two eyes; I almost have three." Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and raised there by his Iranian parents, Bahrani moved to New York City to study film at Columbia. After graduating he set off for Iran, but his six-week trip turned into a three-year residence, an experience he says was "incredibly instrumental" to his career as a filmmaker. His time in Iran, he says, gave him a new kind of vision. "There's a Persian poem, it says, 'One's eyes must be clean / the new way must be seen." For Bahrani what was eye-opening about Iran was the mixing between peoples: "You're with every kind of person," he says. "Devoutly religious, moderately religious, secular- completely, rich, poor, woman, man, liberal women, more conservative women; always, all together, mixed up. It's different from most of America. You can get that feeling a little bit in parts of New York. But in major sections of Manhattan you don't really get that feeling anymore, it's like a suburban strip mall now.
"Now in Iran they're all together, all the time, and I like that very much. You're constantly feeling the dirt and the leaves and the garbage and the roads, all in the same time, you can touch it and smell it and be involved in it." Though only 33, Bahrani is already living his belief that "independent films need independent vision," not just independent money. In the current cinematic climate where snappy dialogue à la Juno, is all the rage, what is striking about Man Push Cart and Chop Shop is not what is said, but rather what remains unspoken: the patience in Ahmad's fingers as he stacks the doughnuts along the cart's window, the watchfulness with which Alé gazes at his sister; Isamar's stillness as Alé calls the pigeons to her with handfulls of birdseed; a battered blue flip-flop floating away in the rain. These uncluttered and sparse images illustrate that in seeking to create on-screen realism, Bahrani has in fact happened upon a surprising cinematic language with which to articulate the contemporary urban American experience. It is a language that, in its simplicity and refusal to embellish, allows us to reflect on the true complexity of human life. In that regard, his films are art at its finest.
Sara Abbas is a writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in Transition and Z.