Chop Shop

Directed by Ramin Bahrani. February 2008, USA. Unrated 84 min.

(Originally published in buzz magazine on 4/24/2009)

This isn’t the first time writer-director Ramin Bahrani — announced tonight as a Guggenheim fellowship winner — has graced the Virginia Theatre stage during Ebertfest. The North Carolina native also appeared in 2006 for Man Push Cart (2005), his sophomore film project (his latest work Goodbye Solo (2008) is in select theaters now).

Roger Ebert preceded the screening with praise for the film’s ability to convey emotions subtly, without using broad statements that could only oversimplify complicated situations.

“This is not a ‘message film,’” he said. “They are too easy.” And, despite his computer program’s mispronunciation of the great director’s surname (“Sir Lawrence [the automated voice] has a mind of his own sometimes,” Chaz said), Ebert compared the artistic touches in Bahrani’s work to Martin Scorsese.

Ebert has also accurately compared this film to Slumdog Millionaire. And don’t get him wrong; he loves Danny Boyle’s late 08 hit. But Chop Shop offers up a third-world-esque reality without the cherry on top. Little Alejandro, a New York street orphan, has no ticket out of the junkyards adjacent to Shea Stadium in Queens, least of all in the form of a game show. Like the protagonist of Slumdog, Ale resorts to petty thieving when work doesn’t make ends meet, and he witnesses violence most middle class folks would consider unfit for younger eyes. Unlike Boyle, however, Bahrani avoids unbelievable narrative leaps and plot twists.

As the film progressed, I found Ebert’s opening comparison of Bahrani to Scorsese more and more fitting. Despite Ale’s young age and innocence, he emerges as a kind of miniature Travis Bickle/Jake LaMotta figure: determined to succeed, self-destructive at times and very protective of the woman in his life (in this case, his 16-year-old sister Isamar, whose “career moves” bother him to say the least).

The post-feature Q&A session had Bahrani touting the merits of legendary Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu with the two guest speakers. Like Ozu, Bahrani said, he likes to make his movies resound with truth by repeating images and motifs.

One such example is characters’ recurring act of attracting pigeons by tossing birdseed. The seemingly mundane act becomes sublime due to the deft movements of cinematographer Michael Simmonds (who holds his own camera, though most cinematographers don’t, Bahrani said).

When I asked Bahrani about those sequences, he admitted the idea came from seeing someone on set feeding birds. Something about it made him want to place pigeon scenes in important parts of the narrative. After he practiced summoning birds for three weeks, he shot 54 takes of the final scene to get it just right (not atypical for Bahrani, who confessed to shooting 30 to 40 takes regularly).

As suggested by the pigeon idea, an overall method of spontaneity pervaded the production of Chop Shop. The actors were almost entirely unprofessional, including the lead actor.

“Ale was a pretty cool kid,” Bahrani said. “His face could express everything.”

Alejandro Polanco even worked in the real-life auto body shop (it’s not just a cardboard set) for months to learn the character. He became such a regular face and natural worker that many onlookers thought Bahrani was filming a documentary.

“There’s really not so big of a difference between fiction and documentary,” Bahrani said.

The director also spoke about the importance of establishing a natural ending — one without complete closure.

“I just don’t get it,” he said. “I can’t make movies like that.”

Rahmani said he’d rather allow viewers to concoct their own imaginary endings.

“My hope is that after the film ends, the characters go home with you.”