Director/Coscreenwriter: Ramin Barhani
Roger Ebert’s Film Festival 2009
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.
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.
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.
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?