x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A singular sense of direction

One on one Ramin Bahrani's bittersweet stories of alienation are a rare joy.

The director takes his place behind the camera.
The director takes his place behind the camera.

There is nobody else quite like Ramin Bahrani in modern cinema. With his naturalistic style and preference for non-professional actors, this 33-year-old Iranian-American writer-director has already been compared to Abbas Kiarostami, Ken Loach and John Cassavetes. But Bahrani also has a unique and timely voice, shining a fiercely objective eye into the overlooked corners of America's multicultural melting pot.

All of Bahrani's prize-winning films so far are bittersweet character studies of immigrant workers in low-wage jobs. Released in 2005, Man Push Cart starred Ahmad Razvi as a luckless Pakistani musician selling coffee from a metal wagon on the streets of New York. In last year's Chop Shop, Alejandro Polanco and Isamar Gonzales played young Latino orphans earning a grim living in a huge scrap-metal yard in Brooklyn.

For his latest film, Goodbye Solo, Bahrani returned to his hometown of Winston-Salem in North Carolina. Souleymane Sy Savane plays Solo, a Senegalese taxi driver who forms an uneasy bond with regular customer William, played by the veteran character actor Red West. Their unlikely friendship ultimately comes to a tragic end, but it is presented in a thoughtful and absorbing manner, with emotional generosity and stoic humour.

Racial, economic and cultural friction are all woven into these stories, but they are never the whole picture. The theme of alienation, Bahrani insists, is the more universal thread that runs through his work. "The immigrant issue is part of each film, but I hope that the films are about a lot more than that," says the softly spoken director. "What I think is interesting in Goodbye Solo is that William feels just as much an outsider as Solo - in fact, arguably he feels even more of an outsider in his own hometown than Solo, who is a new transplant there. William is like a Marlboro Man who feels like he has been told he can't smoke any more."

Alienation and dislocation are clearly personal themes for Bahrani. His own parents were immigrants to America, arriving from Iran in 1968. Born in 1975 in Winston-Salem, he was raised with two cultures, although his liberal family gave him "a certain set of ethics and values". Bahrani views history as "the economic destruction of the East by the West, and the destruction of the imagination." But he is also opposed to tribalism, and clearly torn between two worlds. "I'm fond of aspects of both cultures, and I'm not fond of other aspects, but I think that's pretty normal," he says.

Alongside classical Persian literature, Bahrani's main childhood influences were writers such as Camus, Kafka and Dostoevsky. "I learned Persian before I learned English," he says. "My dad would talk a lot about our history, our literature, the poetry and culture. Then when I was at Columbia University I studied more Persian and Iranian, both language and literature." Rising curiosity about his own cultural heritage led Bahrani to visit Iran for the first time, at 23. He planned to return after six weeks, but ended up staying for more than two years. While there, he wrote, directed and acted in Strangers, his semi-autobiographical graduation film about a young American exploring his Iranian roots. But despite becoming fluent enough to pass for a Tehran native, he eventually realised that he felt equally alienated in his ancestral homeland as he did in America.

"I thought if I wanted to know about myself I should find out more about the culture that was talked about so much throughout my upbringing," Bahrani recalls. "It's a very different way of life there. But if you asked me where I am from I'd say America, Iran - and Senegal because of Goodbye Solo. I'm also Latino because of Chop Shop, I'm Pakistani because of Man Push Cart, and I'm French because of my co-writer."

Bahrani returned to New York in the wake of September 11. A very different America awaited him. While shooting Man Push Cart, he and his Pakistani actor were questioned as suspected terrorists for carrying a gas canister through the city streets. Tension was understandably high. "I have noticed changes, of course, it is impossible not to notice them," he says. "Interestingly, the people I now get to meet in the streets of New York who are Muslim quickly want me to be Muslim too. That seems new since September 11. They want you to take sides, but I tend to be on no side."

After years on the low-budget fringe, Bahrani's next two film projects should draw him closer to the mainstream. The first is a 19th-century period piece which he describes as "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest in the American West". He is also hoping to adapt The White Tiger, the highly acclaimed satirical novel by his old college friend Aravind Adiga. The book is set in contemporary India and recently won the prestigious Man Booker prize.

Bahrani denies that his main agenda is to make films with a political or social point, insisting any such messages are "secondary to the creation of an emotional and philosophical truth about the world". He also becomes rattled when reviewers dismiss his characters as "marginalised" and his films as "third world" stories. "Those people make up the overwhelming majority of the world, economically," Bahrani shrugs. "I can't say I came from a poor family. I'm educated, I'm from the suburbs. But that does not mean I should be alienated from poor people, and I try and express things honestly about them.

"There's nothing romantic about the characters and situations in my films, and I hope that there is nothing intellectual about them. When people get into cliches, that's usually through romanticism and intellectualism. I'm against both of them."