Besides offering travel opportunities for the lazy, agoraphobic and/or chronically under-funded, cinema confirms our ideas about what the world’s supposed to look like. As soon as a site appears on screen, we place it somewhere in our mental geography, depending on whether we read it as familiar or novel, developed or developing, urban or rural, orderly or chaotic, rich or poor, old or new, here or there.
Once in a while, a site upends those snap judgments about where somewhere is, why it looks that way, and who belongs there. That’s why the primary location for Chop Shop— the second feature by Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani—can seem as foreign as a Bangladeshi slum or a Bulgarian backwater. A more apt comparison might be some Chinese factory town, albeit one where even the lowliest worker can afford an automobile and is determined to pimp it out at the earliest opportunity. With that in mind, they’ve all converged on the same summer afternoon on a street flanked with squat, ugly buildings. There’s not much colour besides rusty brown and asphalt grey—if there is, it’s the metallic blues, reds and yellows you find in auto paints. If not for the presence of people—themselves coloured in varying hues of pink and brown—it looks like the kind of neighbourhood that the cars would build for themselves.
That Shea Stadium is visible in the background is one tip-off that any comforting assumptions about this place’s foreignness are misplaced. Chop Shop takes place in Willet’s Point, Queens, 75 acres worth of dumps, junkyards, and auto-body shops that’s known as the Iron Triangle. It’s also been described as “the Valley of the Ashes,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby, and, in the more recent words of Mayor Bloomberg, “the bleakest point of New York.” Perhaps anticipating the shock that this sight would have on viewers, Bahrani does not begin the film here—instead, we first see the 12-year-old protagonist Ale (Alejandro Polanco) amid a group of day workers at a roadside, then selling candy bars on the subway. But once we’re in the Iron Triangle, it’s pretty much where we stay. That’s true for the characters, too.
Like Man Push Cart—Bahrani’s 2005 feature, released in October on DVD—Chop Shop is the story of a young person who occupies a precarious place in New York City’s lowest economic strata. Ale is a Latino street orphan who lives and works in an auto-body shop in Willet’s Point. In the early scenes, Bahrani emphasizes Ale’s industriousness, portraying him as he delivers his sales pitch to subway passengers (“We’re not gonna lie to you, we’re not here selling candy for no school basketball team—in fact, I don’t even go to school”) or attracting potential clients to his shop.
Though his boss, Rob (played by Rob Sowulski, the real owner of the business), treats Ale with a brusque, no-nonsense manner that could almost be construed as fatherly, the boy has no parental figures. When he’s reunited with his 16-year-old sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales, another first-timer) after she too comes to live in Rob’s shop, he still seems more like the grown-up of the pair. His ambition to buy a food van in order to secure them a stable livelihood turns out to be far beyond his reach.
Precisely and sensitively rendered, Chop Shop was one of the standouts in the Directors’ Fortnight in 2007. As the film wended its way through the fall festival circuit, it continued to fight above its weight class. But what’s most remarkable about Chop Shop is not its intelligence or humanity, or Bahrani’s increasing fluency with the cinematic language he learned from the gods of neo-realism (Italians and Iranians in particular). It’s how convincingly he fuses his characters with their environment. While it may seem strange to suggest that a movie set in New York could be another example of the renewed enthusiasm for a regionalist aesthetic in American indie circles, the Willet’s Point of Chop Shop is every bit as distinctive, compelling and strange as the Cascade Mountains in Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2006), Memphis in Ira Sachs’ Forty Shades of Blue (2005), England, Arkansas in Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories and the North Carolina towns in Phil Morrison’s Junebug (2006) and David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000).
Ironically, North Carolina was also the home state of Bahrani, though the influence of later homes is more recognizable in his work. After completing a film degree at Columbia University in 1998, he spent three years in Iran, where he met filmmakers including Abbas Kiarostami. While living there Bahrani made a semi-autobiographical thesis film named Strangers (2000), in which he played an Iranian-American who copes with Egoyan-esque feelings of estrangement. Upon returning to New York, Bahrani began work on Man Push Cart. The story of a grief-stricken food-cart operator who gave up a promising musical career in Pakistan to face a harsher fate in the US, Bahrani’s first feature takes place in a version of the city that will be far more familiar to Law & Order viewers. His intention is to fully dramatize the story of a figure that is at once ubiquitous and invisible in a quotidian urban milieu—as a street vendor, Man Push Cart’s lead character is in the lowest castes of Manhattan’s vast social hierarchy. Unfortunately, Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) may still stand out a little too much. After all, he used to be “the Bono of Lahore,” according to a wealthier Pakistani-American who recognizes him. Ahmad’s extreme passivity also makes him problematic as a protagonist—for all the shots of him dragging his push cart through the streets, he’s stuck, and Bahrani’s efforts to budge him into motion can be overly contrived.
There’s no such problem with Ale—for one thing, the kid almost never stops moving. And whereas Ahmad can seem rootless as he glumly goes through his day, Ale seems indivisible from his surroundings as he wends his way through the Iron Triangle. Indeed, the character is literally a child of the place. While Bahrani was editing Man Push Cart, his cinematographer Michael Simmonds told him about what he saw when he got his car fixed there. Upon seeing it for himself, Bahrani thought, “If Los Olivadados (1950) were to be made today and in America, it would be made here.”
Besides the raw desperation of the environment, another connection to the Buñuel film was that this was a place overrun with boys. Like Ale in the film, they hustle customers into their bosses’ garages. The director had the idea that Ale might live where he worked after seeing that one such garage—which belonged to Rob Sowulski, the mechanic he would turn into an actor— had a small second-floor room that could be a place that two children could live. In Chop Shop, Ale beams as he shows this room to Isamar, pointing out the presence of both a microwave and a fridge full of Country Club soda—“all grape!” he says proudly.
The room also reminded Bahrani of a treehouse. Though that association is not so strongly emphasized in the movie, many of Chop Shop’s most affecting moments are the ones that show Ale at his most boyish, whether he’s teasing his sister, pushing shopping carts off an overpass, or surreptitiously watching a Jets game. The final scene—that ends Chop Shop on a hopeful note, though it’s clear that no one’s getting out of Willet’s Point any time soon—also suggest that for all of Ale’s struggles, he retains a capacity for joy and wonder. If such things can exist in this brutal, all-American wasteland, maybe it isn’t so uninhabitable—this tenacious and resilient kid not only survives New York’s bleakest point but transforms it.