Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ramin Bahrani, My New Favorite Director

Following up on director Ramin Bahrani, I've recently watched his two earlier feature films Man Push Cart and Chop Shop. I was going to post about each of these films separately, but I've decided to roll it into one post about the director.

Man Push Cart (2005) follows a Pakistani immigrant, Ahmad, as he sells coffee and bagels in New York from his pushcart. Unlike the other pushcart vendors who have vehicles, however, Ahmad literally pushes (and pulls) his cart into place and back to the warehouse for an hour each day. Along the lines of Bahrani's other films, the many shots that make up Ahmad's daily routine add an extra layer of existentiality to the film.

Along similar lines, Chop Shop (2007) follows a young boy named Alejandro (Ale) on his daily routine working at auto repair shops in the Iron Triangle. Ale lives in the back of one of the shops he works at and learns auto-body repair from his boss and the other people who work at the shop. Although similarly 'existential,' some of the actions of the characters, such as prostitution and theft, are notably darker than the events of Man Push Cart.

I've already posted a bit about Goodbye Solo (2008) here. After watching Bahrani's earlier two films, however, it is worth mentioning that Goodbye Solo retains much of the characteristics of these first two films.

In my earlier post on Goodbye Solo I pointed out that Bahrani is an Iranian-American and completed his Master's thesis project (from Columbia) in Iran. I found this significant, because his filmmaking shares a great deal of similarities with other Iranian directors, particularly Abbas Kiarostami. After already pointing out scene-for-scene similarities between Goodbye Solo and Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry, I was surprised that Chop Shop opens almost identitically to Taste of Cherry! Each film begins with day laborers looking for work - the difference being that Chop Shop follows one of the day laborers, whereas Taste of Cherry follows a wealthier citizen.

Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of Bahrani's aesthetic, however, is his unique neorealist attention to detail. Each of these films documents the lives of working class people, but at the same time expands the existential situation beyond their day to day affairs by developing a particular psychological understanding of the main characters that is firmly based in an ontological understanding of their lives. For example, the main chracters in each film are generally all working towards some monetary goal (purchasing a taco truck, a vendor's cart, getting a new job), but this goal is a way to connect with something immaterial. It is this immaterial 'thing' (desire?) at the center of each character's existence, that makes each film unique. For example, Ahmad is working to earn enough money to buy his own pushcart, which will allow his son to move in with him. This is clearly connected with atonement for something that is never revealed, but that his son's grandmother clearly blames him for (it is clear that his wife died, and her mother blames Ahmad, but it is never revealed why she blames him).

Because of this almost algorithmic approach to filmmaking, each of Bahrani's films is a fascinating case study of a working-class minority in the United States. What I think makes Bahrani's films especially valuable, however, is how this approach demystifies the ontology of the 'other.' The Pakistani pushcart vendor, the Latin-American street youth, and the Senegalese cab driver's lives are shown to be uniquely difficult, but they also share the same family dramas, economic hardships, and secret aspirations as the people that interact with them. Although it sounds like a cliche, what Bahrani's films do best is make you look at the people who are so completely other to you and realize that their unique situation is just as unique as your own.

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