Ramin Bahrani: "Another America" [review]

Lydia Howell is a Minneapolis arts reporter and journalist. Winner of the Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism, she contributes regularly to The Liberator. She is also producer and host of Catalyst on KFAI Radio in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

It's such a pure delight to discover a new filmmaker that's NOT the usual empty hype.---and you've got a great chance to do so. April 2nd and 3rd, Walker Art Center presents the three features made in the last five years by award-winning Iranian-American filmmaker, Ramin Bahrani.

Bahrani shows the America that media ignores but, that many of us actually live in: struggling to make it on low-wage jobs while clinging to tattered dreams and our sense of self in a U.S.A. divided by race and class. In three moving character studies the protagonists are a South East Asian immigrant street vendor, a homeless Mexican boy and a hopeful Senegalese taxi driver. Within minutes of his films' beginning, you care deeply about each of these people. They embody core human values often absent amid Hollywood's obsession with special effects, gunfire and explosions or life crisis of well-of white folk. The eight or more hours a day they work isn't left on the cutting room floor either.

“Man Push Car” ,Bahrani debut feature (2005) won over ten international prizes. Ahmad is former pop star from Pakistan who has immigrated to New York City and makes his living as a sidewalk vendor of bagels and coffee. He's suffered not only the loss of his homeland and fame but, is a recent widower who's estranged young son lives with his in-laws. Ahmad Razi, who plays the lead character, was himself a pushcart vendor for many years, inspired much of the film's story and has a brooding charisma.

The recurring images of Ahmad pulling that silver box on wheels are haunting. He is part Sisyphus (the Greek character who spent eternity rolling a rock up a hill only to have ti roll back down as soon as he reached the top). But, that cart also seems like Ahmad's cocoon of routine that keeps his losses at bay. His friendship with a young woman from Spain---who works in a nearby newsstand while hoping to become a translator---flirts with romance but, has a reality that often absent in most Hollywood films. That is, Bahrani does not use the only female character as an opportunity to show some flesh and have an obligatory sex scene. A well-off , assimilated Pakistani businessman that Ahmad meets and does odd jobs for, may be a shady character or Ahmad's chance for a musical comeback.

“Man Push Cart” has an elegiac quality echoing the post-WWII European neo-realists (especially di Sicca). Cinematographer Michael Simmonds captures a gleaming metropolis where, at dawn, homeless people and immigrant workers scuffle to survive amidst designer stores selling $900 handbags.

“Chop Shop” (2007) is an extraordinary film with an amazing performance by a first-time child actor, Alejandro Planco, at its center. Twelve year old Alejandro and his sister Izzy, who's around 16 or 17, are homeless. We don't know how they came to be that way: are their parents dead or deported? Alejandro gets work at a “chop shop”---an auto repair that gets at least some of its parts by theft—and charms his boss into giving him and his sister a cubbieole room on site to live in.

Bahrani has told interviewers that his films are partially sparked by his keen sense of place. “Chop Shop” is set in what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the valley of ashes” and NYC Mayor Bloomberg says is “the bleakest point in the city”. It's an urban wasteland of junk yards, repair shops, vacant lots and freeways across from Shea Stadium, which becomes a kind of beacon in the film. Alejandro's eagerness to learn everything he can about fixing cars and his ambition to save money to buy a push cart that will create economic independence for him and his sister counter the conservative demonization of poor people deserving their fate. Izzy is more contradicted as she flounders with adolescent angst and the trials of young womanhood emerging on the mean streets. If there's a single flaw in “Chop Shop”, it's that Izzy far more barely-drawn character than Alejandro is.

There's so much emotional truth in this film as it reveals a reality I've reported on: thousands of youth live on American streets, who are invisible. Simmonds' night cinematography veers from menacing to magical. Without reservation, I can say I totally loved this film and strongly urge you not to miss it.

Finally, you can get a preview of Bahrani new film “Goodbye Solo”(2008) which opens this spring.

Set in Bahrani hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina (where he was born in 1975), the film ponders an unlikely friendship between a Senegalese taxi driver and one of his passengers, an old white man who has come to a dead-end in his life. Solo, played by Soulemane Sy Savane, makes his living as a night shift taxi driver, married to a Mexican woman and sending money back home to relatives in Senegal. Red West plays the passenger, William, a man of seething silence and guarded secrets, who makes Solo a lucrative but terrible offer: $1,000 to drive him to Blowing Rock, an infamous suicide spot , in two weeks.

Solo takes on the task of trying to draw William back from the brink, with the aid of his precocious nine-year-old step-daughter, very realistically rendered by Diane Franco Galindo. Besides making himself indispensably present to take Williams on the various errands to wrap up his affairs and the nightly movies he goes to, Solo brings William into his own life. >From playing pool and drinking beer to William coaching Solo for an interview to realize his dream to become a flight attendant, a bond forms against what look like impossible odds of culture and temperament. William is, frankly, an old school redneck and makes the Hollywood “grumpy old men” characters seem like gregarious diplomats. In stark contrast, Solo is one of the most luminous spirits you'll see on film.

Simmonds' cinematography of the North Carolina landscape is beautifully, painterly while his penchant for night in the city is a strong contrast. The loneliness of a single car's red rear lights on a two-lane road at night communicate in an image the isolation that William could never put into words and that Solo finds so perplexing.

“Goodbye Solo” doesn't entirely explain who Williams is and that's somewhat unsatisfying. However, Bahrani has said he resists “tying it up with a neat bow” endings and this approach is in sync with the neo-realist tradition he's revitalizing in American cinema. He studied and now teaches at Columbia, lived for three years in his parents' Iran, made his student thesis film “Strangers” there and spent time in Paris. While drawing from some of the best of 20th century European cinema, he's as American as Frank Capra or Elia Kazan---without the schmaltz and fake optimism. In short, while having heart, Bahrani keeps it very real. The only shortcoming to Bahrani films is how marginal, secondary and sketchy his female characters are. I'd love to see what he would do with a film created around a female protagonist.

Ramin Bahrani has a truly authentic vision that avoids sentimentality to present humanity in fresh faces.. After watching these films, for the first time, you may wonder about the lives of people you never noticed before: Mexican yard workers you see working this summer. Scruffy youth on the street who might have nowhere to sleep tonight. Or the African cab driver taking you home from the bar.

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