Ebertfest 2009: Chop Shop (2007)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Ramin Barhani

Roger Ebert’s Film Festival 2009

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Ramin Barhani, who, we learned this afternoon at Ebertfest, was just awarded a Guggenheim “genius” grant, has been making his name chronicling the lives of the “new” Americans. His first two films dealt with his Iranian background. His breakout film, Man Push Cart (2003), explored the new immigrant experience through the life of a Pakistani pushcart operator. His next feature, Chop Shop, takes viewers to the so-called Iron Triangle, an area resting in the shadow of Shea Stadium that is lined with auto repair and body shops manned largely with immigrants to the United States. Through his 12-year-old Puerto Rican protagonist Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), we see the kind of hustle it takes to survive in this country and the kind of restless industry that has driven wave upon wave of immigrants to strive for a better life. Imagine a young, as-yet less ruthless Vito Corleone alone in New York, and you might have some idea of how universal Ale’s story really is.

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Ale and his friend Carlos (Carlos Zapata) board a subway train. “Ladies and gentlemen, please excuse the interruption,” begins Ale’s spiel as the pair announces they are not in school but could be if the passengers would buy candy from them. The sales are easy and brisk, and the pair split $30 and walk back to their world in the Triangle. Ale lives at the auto repair shop where he works and learns the trade. After several fruitless attempts to contact his sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), she finally turns up. He proudly shows her the free room he can now share with her. “It’s small,” she says of the former office overlooking the shop, but is excited to learn that there is a real bathroom with shower down below. Ale has also gotten her a job with the owner of a meal wagon in the Triangle, an job she doesn’t like but learns to endure when Ale says he’ll “fix it” so the boss isn’t so critical of Isamar.

Ale’s dream is to buy a meal wagon that he and Isamar can run themselves. He has talked a shop owner down to an asking price of $4,500 for one wheeled warrior that has seen much better days. The rest of the film shows how Ale hustles however he can—selling DVDs, helping to chop down a stolen vehicle, boosting hubcaps from cars parked outside of Shea, even, in desperation, snatching a purse to help make his dream come true just a little bit faster.

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Things aren’t rosy for the devoted brother and sister. Ale is disturbed when he sees Isamar peddling blow jobs in an ever-present truck in the yard. Yet, the pair don’t speak of it; Ale merely gets more tied up in knots every time she goes out, leading to a blow-up of pure frustration. Later, he finds his meal wagon needs more than his skills at body work and Isamar’s famous empanades—it needs a new kitchen that will cost at least $10,000. Carlos surprises Ale in his secret hideout where his DVDs and money can are hidden away, making Ale suspicious that Carlos has been following him and intends to steal his nest egg.

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The last straw for Ale is when he sees Isamar with a john in a parked car. He decides to take a stand, walks up to the car, opens the door, and strikes the man. After a brief scuffle, Ale and Isamar go back to their home. In the morning, they reconcile by feeding some pigeons.

This is a slice-of-life film from a life not many people know or care about. It’s not a world entirely foreign to cinephiles, however. Dodesukaden from Akira Kurosawa, Fellini’s I Vitelloni, Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, George Washington from David Gordon Green, even, to some extent, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, take us into the world of the underclasses and feature children and young adults living on the ropes with varying degrees of hope. Chop Shop doesn’t really add anything new to this genre aside from giving it a more overtly American spin that favors personal initiative and downplays the problems Ale will have as an increasingly angry, illiterate boy entering his volatile teenage years.

I liked that this film stayed away from the sensationalism we’ve come to expect from such stories: there are no guns, violence is limited to a couple of alcohol-fueled fist fights, adults help and teach Ale, and nobody makes any passes at Isamar. This is just life as it happens, as with obvious variations, we would expect it to happen in our own worlds. That refusal to either ennoble or demonize its characters felt honest.

Nonetheless, the hubby became very angry by the end of this film and did not want to stay for the Q&A. “I don’t want to attack someone who is obviously so well-meaning,” he said, referring to comments Bahrani made while introducing the film that he hoped we’d want to share the dream of this boy. And perhaps the hubby has a point. It’s important, I think, to have films that show us worlds we’d never see; true empathy cannot begin without awareness and understanding. While Ale, Isamar, and most of the rest of the cast are nonprofessional actors assuming roles—this is not a documentary—there are plenty of real boys and girls living lives similar to the ones displayed in the film. But what will audiences do with the information they get from Chop Shop? Do they have to do anything with it? Is it just an American story that will generate 30 minutes of discussion over dinner at an Asian fusion restaurant and then be forgotten? I’m sorry to say that as skilled as Bahrani is—and this is nothing if not a well-made film—and as well-meaning as he may be, he has created a radical chic document without perhaps being fully aware of it, complete with a “happy” ending. I can see his career trajectory becoming something similar to Stephen Soderbergh’s, which ain’t half bad but perhaps less than it could be. Am I being unfair? What do you think?

  • Daniel spoke:
    24th/04/2009 to 2:35 pm

    Hey, what’s wrong with Asian fusion restaurants? 😛
    I think your husband influenced you just a tad on that last bit. The endings of his films don’t strike me as conventionally “happy”. Maybe hopeful, but there’s a fine line between the two.
    That said, Bahrani does have an idealistic streak. He screened Goodbye Solo here a few weeks ago and stayed afterwards for almost 90 minutes of discussion, where he mostly talked about love. I find it refreshing and admirable, though. Too many filmmakers are interested in showing us “real life” as painful, tragic, etc., when it isn’t always so.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    24th/04/2009 to 6:48 pm

    Daniel – I think Bahrani is a good guy, but he hasn’t found a voice yet. This film has its influences written all over it to the point that they obscure his genuine vision. The hubby may have influenced me, but we were talking to other people today who agreed that it did seem a little exploitative. I expect great things from Bahrani when he comes of age – he’s very talented. This film just didn’t quite make it.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    25th/04/2009 to 10:34 am

    Interesting that you would mention I Vitelloni (a very underappreciated Fellini, in my opinion). I’ve never viewed the vitelloni as under-class so much as the early-fifties Italian version of today’s slackers … they are capable of making a living, but don’t have the motivation for whatever reason. They’re living on the ropes for their own reasons, some of which are reasonable, and some not …
    That said, when I see Chop Shop (it’s going to the top of the ol’ Netflix queue today) I’ll appreciate it more due to this thoughtful piece. Thanks!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    25th/04/2009 to 11:15 am

    Thanks, Rick. I choose I Vitelloni because of the reaction they get when they go to Milan. They’re dumb hicks to their Milanese coworkers, definitely strangers in their own land, and certainly from the poorer end of society. It’s not a straight analogy, but I see it as an influence for the cinema verite feel of this film.

  • fox spoke:
    26th/04/2009 to 3:13 am

    Marilyn-
    I think I agree with your sentiments in the last paragraph. I might change my definition of Chop Shop to “immigrant chic” instead of “radical”, but I think we’re somewhere on the same wavelength.
    It’s perfect that you compare this to Bunuel’s Los Olvidados, b/c I think Bahrani wants to Chop Shop to be exactly that kind of film,… but it’s far far from it. Los Olvidados incorporated visions of Bunuel’s trademark absurdity and dark humor amongst the “realism” of his Mexican kids. He tapped into an honesty by not trying to pretend he could actually portray something “real” via film.
    I think Bahrani aims for realism in Chop Shop and it ends up being his major error. It’s what gives the film a false romantacism, in my opinion. This is very similar to the way I felt when I say the Mexican movie Sin Nombre earlier today. Their journey from cental America to Texas felt romantacized, not honest. Even the depiction of the MS13 gang (some of the most brutal bastards on Earth) felt kind of “pretty”. Again, good intentions, but kind of clueless artistry.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/04/2009 to 7:59 am

    I do think Chop Shop is a lyrical piece; the last image certainly as a poetry to it. There is something poetic about the whole film. which I think is slightly different than romanticism. Yet, I think you’re right. Bahrani said in his opening remarks that the film came about because his friend told him he had to come to the Iron Triangle with him, knowing Bahrani would be instantly attracted to what he found. That smacks of romanticism to me.
    And yes, immigrant chic is more contemporary. Good coin of phrase.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/04/2009 to 4:13 pm

    Rick, I was thinking of Rocco and His Brothers, not I Vitelloni. I apologize for the confusion.

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