It's interesting to see a filmmaker in the early stages of his career growing into his own. Independent filmmaker Ramin Bahrani is the latest who at this date has only directed two features, but is already developing his own style. That style is a gritty neorealism, a style embraced by such directors as Fernando Meirelles (City of God and The Constant Gardener) or even Paul Greengrass (United 93 and The Bourne Ultimatum). But, unlike Meirelles and Greengrass, Bahrani is less apt to focus on the heroics of his characters but more on their disappointments and frustrations.
CHOP SHOP takes place and is essentially about Willets Point, a neighborhood in the Queens borough of New York City. Actually, calling it a neighborhood is being way too generous. On the DVD commentary, Bahrani says that in the F. Scott Fitzgerald book The Great Gatsby, Willets Point is referred to as "the valley of ashes." Bahrani added that recently Mayor Michael Bloomberg called Willets Point "the bleakest point in New York." Bahrani observes that yes it's basically 20 blocks of junkyards and broken streets.
To give some perspective and some idea, Willets Point has no sidewalks or residential sewers. The area is located directly east of LaGuardia Airport and Shea Stadium, the baseball field being just a stone's throw away. The land is filled, crowded like shanty towns, with auto repair shops, scrap yards, waste processing sites, and other similar businesses. According to Hunter College, Willets Point is notable for nothing if not its unique availability of auto parts and auto repair. In fact, Bahrani got the idea for the film while taking a car there to be fixed.
Because of the poor drainage and sewer system, during extreme rains Willets Point easily floods. In April of this year, the Willets Point Industry and Realty Association, representing the 10 largest organizations of the 260 existing businesses, filed a lawsuit against the City of New York to get the city to build a basic infrastructure, including vital street repairs, street lights, and a proper sanitary sewer system. Just a short time prior to the lawsuit's filing, Bahrani photographed and film an actual flood in Willets Point because of the lacking in a sewer system.
Bahrani hauntingly captured the real streets consumed with water, cars half-buried and a highly-telling image of a child's blue flip-flop sandal floating in the overflow. It was back when Bahrani first came to Willets Point to drop off his car to be fixed that he first saw children playing in the streets here in their flip flops. He thought to himself how could children live, let alone play, in a wasteland like this.
As of June of this year, Mayor Bloomberg got an urban renewal and redevelopment plan approved that seeks to demolish that area and rebuild it with a new convention center, as well as retail and office space. Willets Point was the proposed site for a failed bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics, and Shea Stadium's days are numbered as it will be torn down next year.
Bahrani wondered how children could be playing in the streets in a place that people think should be demolished because it's practically unlivable due to sanitation and sewage issues. Yet, that's what he saw.
Bahrani's attempt was to understand how children can exist in a place where they shouldn't, an "Iron Triangle," urban blight and decay trapped in a small, three-sided space. Bahrani offers no explanation, which might go to origins. He merely presents a striking snapshot of just what life is like for the children here.
Like with Bahrani's directorial debut Man Push Cart (2006), the story centers on a young ethnic person, here a 12-year-old boy named Alejandro, who is very poor, struggling, and who works a tedious, low-waged job, unlike most portrayed anywhere in movies. This time, instead of Pakistani, Alejandro is Hispanic.
Alejandro lives and works in a garage. Not the same garage, but his home is a somewhat renovated, tiny mechanic's garage. When Alejandro's sister, Isamar, comes to stay with him, she's shocked to see that he has a working shower, considering the neighborhood. Yet, the only sleeping area they have is a twin-sized bed that they must share in a small closet-sized bedroom built directly above where the cars where pull in, probably the former garage office.
Neither of them have parental supervision. They, for the most part, are orphans, living off the streets, doing what they have to do to earn money. Most of it is cash under the table, and a lot of it from doing illegal activities. The film is mostly these two doing what they can to make their meager living.
For many scenes, Bahrani hangs his camera back a good distance away from his actors. He achieves several things with this. In one instance, toward the opening, on a bridge leaving the borough, Bahrani has his camera so far away, you can see Alejandro in front of the entire Manhattan skyline. In another shot, Bahrani steps back to see Alejandro playing in the street with the IRT-7 train passing behind him, all in the shadow of Shea Stadium.
Bahrani hangs back and hangs on these shots to allow us to absorb the metallic environment and get a sense of its harshness. That harshness is usually compounded because Manhattan and Shea Stadium, which are so close, are so unreachable for Alejandro and the characters in his world. Both might as well be ephemeral, like ghosts or faded images. They merely loom in the background representing bustling centers of life that contrast what's lacking in Willets Point.
As strange as it may be, this film echoed that of "A Raisin in the Sun." Here, you have another example of a dream deferred. Alejandro is a hustler. He's smart. He has the ability to work hard. He doesn't have many opportunities. It sometimes pushes him to do shady things, but he does have a dream.
Having to scrap and scrounge for money, Alejandro dreams of starting his own food truck, a more mobile one than in man push cart, but all he has to do is save enough cash and he can buy a used one. He can fix it up and run it with his sister. Alejandro becomes focused on that goal, mainly because he understands where he's at, and that this may be his only chance.
Unlike Walter Lee, Alejandro doesn't really complain about his situation. He's never woeful. He's always determined. He doesn't go to school, yet he knows he has to work to live, no matter the child labor laws. He's pragmatic, in a constant state of motion, like a shark. He's industrious, yet sneaky. He does take time to play and be a kid, but young actor Alejandro Polanco, who portrays the fictional Alejandro, can also act so much like an adult, whether it's being like an older brother and father-figure to his older sister, or taking the law into his own hands. Polanco is an absolute natural.
For certain scenes, Bahrani let the children improvise their scenes. He rehearsed the scenes on handicam, just to get a feeling of how the kids would behave and he simply charted their actions. He made Polanco really work in a Willets Point garage for six months before principal photography, so when they went back to do the real scenes, it would feel even more natural.
For some scenes, Bahrani even included real people who just happened to be there. He kept his camera back so it wouldn't be so intrusive, so the people would feel like they're not being merely portrayed in a film but just living their lives. Bahrani described it as making a documentary with an uncomfortable camera.
Except, the film doesn't feel uncomfortable. It feels honest and genuine, fresh, and insightful, turning the screen into a window to this real world. It's by far one of the best films of 2008. It's one of the best films I've seen ever.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated R for language and adult themes
Running Time: 1 hr. and 24 mins.