Ramin Bahrani’s first feature Man Push Cart (2005), which played opening night at last year’s Wisconsin Film Festival, explores the world of a Pakistani pop musician, whose immigrant status has forced him to operate a push cart in Manhattan. More than anything, it’s a meditation on the streets of New York City at night, as Bahrani emphasizes the cinematic details of this milieu over plot in order to create a kind of poetic realism. His lead actor from Man Push Cart, Ahmad Razvi, now operates an auto body shop in the Willets Point section of Queens, right near Shea Stadium, where the New York Mets play. But Bahrani’s second feature, Chop Shop (2007), which premiered at Cannes and will also play at this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival, focuses not on Razvi, but on a scrawny twelve-year-old Latino kid, Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), who works at another chop shop where the owner allows him to live upstairs. Bahrani eschews expository background information about Alejandro, or Ale, as he’s called in the film. Suffice to say that Ale’s a survivor, the type of kid who can’t be held down, no matter what obstacles life hurls in his path.
Ale concocts a scheme to buy a lunch truck, so that he and his sixteen-year-old sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), can control their own destinies. It represents his ticket out of the chop shops and her escape from having to turn tricks with truckers, a painful discovery that Ale makes one night during the course of the film. Whereas some plot elements are initiated and not necessarily developed in Man Push Cart, Bahrani does the same in Chop Shop – the broken lock on the door, Ale’s hiding place for the money, Ale’s suspicions of Lilah – in order to build a sense of impending catastrophe. Ale attempts to navigate a treacherous world with an optimism that – as might be expected of someone so young – is also remarkably naive. Ale is only a youngster after all, even if he races around the neighborhood with the bravado of an ultimate fighter.
Ale moves from day laborer, to hawking candy on the subway, to steady work in the chop shops, to selling DVDs, to stealing hub caps from the stadium parking lot, to more serious crime. As a result, the film moves forward with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, but Bahrani wisely ends his film on a metaphor that’s similar to one that Charles Burnett used throughout his film of a South Central family under siege, To Sleep With Anger. Bahrani, who is Iranian American, grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and went to film school at Columbia, collaborates with cinematographer, Michael Simmonds, to make a film that never lapses into sentimentality. The two of them are much more interested in capturing the look and texture of this underground economy with closely observed poetic images, such as a blue rubber sandal floating down a flooded street or a black pit bull attacking a car jack with menacing ferocity.
Much of the film involves Ale’s relationship with Isamar. Although he’s much younger, Ale is the one who gets her a job and a place to stay above Rob’s chop shop. Isamar complains about the cramped quarters, but Ale counters that it has a bed, microwave, and refrigerator, which is stocked with bottles of grape soda. When Ale observes Isamar struggling at her job – she’s lazy rather than ambitious like him – he also comes up with a master plan. What’s interesting about their relationship is the role reversal. Although he loves her intensely, Ale acts very much like a jealous boyfriend or husband, trying hard to manage and control every aspect of his sister’s life. Despite his young age, he’s the pragmatic and responsible one in the family. Ale knows that he can’t afford to be kicked out of the auto repair shop for having parties. There are also certain things that are left unsaid in their relationship. Blood trumps friendship. When Ale discovers how his sister spends her nights, and his pint-sized friend Carlos (Carlos Zapata) makes the mistake of verbalizing what they have both witnessed, Ale storms off and refuses to acknowledge his friend, who has crossed that mysterious line we all draw with invisible ink when it comes to personal boundaries.
The most interesting aspect about Chop Shop is the film’s naturalism, which is enhanced by Bahrani’s use of non-professional actors, fluid camera work, and, in particular, how he deals with the script. Like so many recent independent films films, such as Aaron Katz’s Quiet City and Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland, the script, which was written by Bahrani and Bahareh Azimi, became altered in the process of making the film. In an interview in Filmmaker, Bahrani told Nick Dawson:
There was a very detailed script which was never shown to the actors. We would rehearse with them for months in advance, so I would tell Ale and Izzy, “Alright, in this scene this happens. This scene is about this” and I would tell each of them separately what I thought the scene would be about for them, not in intellectual terms, but in the most fundamental terms. They remember enough of it to get the point and then they say it the way they want to say it. I’d record all the rehearsals and I’d transcribe the best of what they’d changed. If they forgot things that were important, I’d remind them, because they don’t read the words, they say it in their own language. “Those shoes are fake.” “No, they’re real.” That’s what it says in the script, but Izzy says, “No, they official.” That’s fuckin’ great, man. I don’t talk like that and I don’t know about it, but whenever she didn’t say “No, they official,” I’d say “Whoa, whoa, whoa, you said ‘No, they official.’ I like that. You have to say that from now on.”
Bahrani’s method of working benefits from improvisation. The scenes are transformed by the actors, so that the resulting changes then become incorporated into the script. Although Chop Shop appears to have a documentary-like spontaneity, the film was very carefully blocked and shot. Its sense of realism is the result of a familiarity built up with the film’s various participants over an extended period of time.
If there are things about Chop Shop that feel a bit deja vu, it has to do with the fact that we’ve seen this story countless times before – the poor orphan kid who struggles to get out of poverty against impossible odds. What’s unusual, however, is that even though the story has become a staple of art cinema – from Italian neo-realism to recent Iranian cinema – Bahrani chooses to focus on the multiethnic underclass within this country. Bahrani shows us a world that’s not untypical, but rather one that most Americans choose to ignore, because it neither matches our national self-image, nor gets represented on our movie screens. As Bahrani puts it: “I bring you to these places that no one wants to accept that they exist. These movies aren’t about marginal characters, despite what people say. These movies are about how most people in the world live: check to check, month to month, day to day.”
Chop Shop will screen at the festival on Saturday, April 5 at 1 PM and Sunday, April 6 at 5:15PM at MMoCA. For further information about the Wisconsin Film Festival, please click here.