By Aaron Hillis
Iranian-American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani’s first feature was “Man Push Cart,” a poignant immigrant drama about a former Pakistani rock god who now spends his days schlepping a coffee cart through the traffic-clogged streets of midtown Manhattan. It was a solid debut, its finest quality being its uncannily beautiful lensing of an oppressively ugly section of New York City. Similarly, the auto body junkyard stretch of Willet’s Point, Queens is the backdrop of Bahrani’s even better second feature, “Chop Shop,” for which the director won the “Someone to Watch” Spirit Award this past weekend. Starring mostly non-actors (some of whom play variants of their real personas), the film tells of an entrepreneurial Latino orphan (Alejandro Polanco) who lives and works in the titular locale, stealing and hustling to support both himself and his older teenage sister (Isamar Gonzales). I sat down with Bahrani in a Tribeca coffee shop to chat about his truly wonderful slice of social realism, his cultural identity and TV’s “Top Chef.”
Immigration is such a hot-button political issue today. Based on the ethnic diversity in your first two films, I’m curious to know if you have strong feelings one way or the other?
Coming from Iran, you learn to keep your mouth shut when it comes to politics. [laughs] A lot of people say that I’m interested in marginal, immigrant or socially and economically poor characters… maybe? I don’t find them marginal; I find them to be the majority. Most people don’t live like Woody Allen characters. Those characters don’t resemble most of the three billion people within the world. What I haven’t addressed much in these films is, I’m against the people who have and [then] destroy the [have-nots]. Those are the ones who piss me off. A lot of my films come out of an anger towards them.
I’m surprised to hear you say anger. I don’t see that in your films.
It’s not in the films, no. They’re what I hope that I could be, and hope people could be. I wish I was as accepting, nonjudgmental and loving as Alejandro and Isamar. They know so much about each other, hurt each other and, in the end, love each other so unconditionally. I don’t see that in the world at the moment.
Is it a personal obligation for you to make films about underrepresented characters?
I’d say I naturally have an interest in it, yeah. I get bored seeing the same characters again and again and again. I find it more engaging to learn about things I don’t know a lot about, and I really do learn about them. I spent one and a half years hanging around the chop shop, talking to everyone. I did research into safe homes, a lot of which got cut out of “Chop Shop.” The whole idea of [Isamar’s] prostitution, a lot of it came out of safe homes. But with each film, I realize I’m not interested in explanation and excessive amounts of backstory to make the viewer say: “Oh, now everything makes sense to me. I can go home and feel good!” There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t interest me.
Film is really 24 frames a second in the present, and I realize when you leave certain gaps, it allows space for the viewer to enter the film. That requires a viewer who wants to be engaged, who wants to have an emotional connection to a film, which should not be confused with films that elicit emotions like weeping and whatnot. You watch a certain movie, and the director puts you in a headlock through ways of dramaturgy, music, camera moves and excessive acting. It hits certain synapses in your brain and makes you cry, then you leave, and the next day you’re having a hamburger and you don’t really remember what the film was. Despite that those are the kinds of films that get lots of accolades and attention, it doesn’t attract me as a person nor as an artist. I’m more interested in the ones because of your participation [that] seep into you, and two months later, are still a part of you. I don’t know if I’ve accomplished this, but it’s what I’m striving for.
You also left out any heavy moralizing about the kids’ actions, which is one of the film’s strengths.
I can show you versions of the script where lots of other things happen, and we just kept eliminating them. We realized they were false, they did not make sense, they weren’t truthful. There were people pressuring me to make [Alejandro’s boss] Rob a good guy and [Rob’s business rival] Ahmad a bad guy, and I kept denying that because it’s not how I imagined it to be. Rob wasn’t a good guy, but he’s doing what he’s doing. Ahmad’s not really a bad guy, but if he can make money on this kid, he’ll do it. But the kid’s making his money, too. Who the hell am I to judge what’s going on? I thought this was such a twisted compliment: Somebody told me, “I saw a kid steal something the other day, on the street, and now I’m glad I didn’t try to stop them.” Two other people said, “If I were to witness this, I don’t think I would try to stop them.” I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing, but I’m really interested in this comment.
Perhaps getting involved would be strangely condescending. After all, everyone is exploiting something or someone to get what they need. It’s just the nature of things.
Your job is to ask me these questions, and my job is to answer them. [gesturing to a waitress] Her job is to serve us this coffee and espresso. The guy on the corner, his job is to be homeless and extend his hand, and your job is to sometimes give him something. This is hard in America for people to accept. In Persian culture, Iranian culture, a lot of other cultures in the East, it’s not so hard to accept.
Khayyam as a poet makes complete sense to me. I wish I could understand it on a deeper level, and that’s why you re-read great things. I hadn’t read “The Rubaiyat” in two years. I was re-reading it in the last couple of weeks, and I understand it a little bit more now. Maybe in two years, I’ll understand it even more. I think this kind of philosophy is challenging for some people in America to accept. He’s so joyously saying that we come from the dust and we’ll go right back to it. I get so excited when people are responding to these films, which accept life for what it is, but with some kind of joy.
You manage to pull seemingly improvised performances out of non-professional actors. Do you have to shoot countless takes, or what?
Usually between 30 to 40 relentless takes. One of the great things about the actors is they “are.” If you pick the right non-professionally trained actors, there’s certain things that they don’t have that you don’t need to get rid of. But the first step is casting. With each film, I become more convinced the job of the director is casting. [laughs] I start filming the kids from the beginning, from the audition. The first audition is just a Q&A to figure out who they are, and then months of rehearsals and sometimes manipulation. Carlos [Zapata] and Alejandro played games; I would arrange them in ways that would create the characters and their relationships just the way I wanted them. Alejandro would become the leader. I’d tell one person something and tell the other person something else, and forbid them to talk to each other about what they’ve been told. Isamar didn’t know what the film was about until she saw it. She never knew if Alejandro stole that phone or who stole her money until she saw the film at the cast and crew screening. She blurted out, “So you did steal my money!”
Would you say you’re inspired by Robert Bresson?
One hundred percent, but the big difference is that I want my actors to have emotions in the film; he did not. Of course, you can see non-actors, but also his use of sound, and the rigor of what you see and what you don’t see. When [Alejandro] tells his sister, “Go to the left to the bathroom,” I don’t cut. Everyone else would cut. But Bresson told you, “don’t cut. Show it. ” Rossellini, Kiarostami, none of the people I respect would’ve shown that girl down there because it cuts off the viewer’s imagination.
If you’re getting bombarded by [sights and sounds] every day, then I have to be slower so that it seeps into you. In fact, films 40 or 50 years ago could have had a faster pace. I think they wanted to. But today, they cannot. There are certain things I don’t do in my life. I don’t watch television, I don’t see a lot of new films, I don’t look at magazines, and I try to hide my eyes from billboards. [laughs] Going to Times Square makes me nauseous. And it’s not that I don’t watch TV because I think it’s good or bad. One of the main reasons is that I don’t want to get addicted each Thursday night. If you told me “The Wire” was good and gave me the DVD, I’d watch it.
So you’re not an anti-television snob, as long as you can watch how you want to watch?
I went to North Carolina to make [my next feature] “Goodbye Solo,” and I lived with my brother. He has TiVo, which I didn’t even know about because I hadn’t had a TV in six years. The good thing about TiVo is that you can watch it whenever you want, and you can skip the commercials. It became more palatable to me. I will confess I got into one show, “Top Chef.” I like that they put so many different pieces together. Some of them look so simple and beautiful on the plate. How do they know what ingredients will make a certain taste? It’s kind of like the film: simple elements put together to create a taste and an emotion as you eat it. I want to learn to be a better cook now.
“Chop Shop” opens in New York today.
[Photos: Isamar Gonzalez and Alejandro Polanco in “Chop Shop”; Ramin Bahrani on set, Koch Lorber Films, 2008]