From the moment I saw Ramin Bahrani's Man Push Cart at Sundance a couple years ago, I knew I'd found a filmmaker I was going to like. In Man Push Cart, Bahrani took a figure most folks who live in or visit New York City take for granted -- the guys who operate the shiny metal pushcarts you see dotting every other street corner, pimping doughnuts and coffee to busy Manhattanites -- and explored the fictional existence of pushcart man Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), a former Pakistani pop star turned average deeply depressed guy trying to survive in the wake of his wife's death. Man Push Cart impressed me because of both the depth with which Bahrani explored his character and the gritty realism with which the film plopped the viewer into Ahmad's dismal, but not hopeless, existence.
Bahrani scored well with Man Push Cart -- the film premiered at Venice before going on to play a slew of fests, including Sundance, before getting a limited theatrical release and a DVD release the UK and Spain (soon to come in the US, according to Bahrani's official website). But in spite of being called " ... among the most striking American independent movies of the last year" (along with In Between Days and Cavite) by Dennis Lim, writing for the New York Times, Man Push Cart was rather overlooked by a lot of critics at Sundance and didn't find huge theatrical success. Roger Ebert liked the film enough to slot it in his Overlooked Film Festival the same year, but the film's total box office is just over $55,000, according to Box Office Mojo. I was disappointed it didn't do better off the fest circuit; it was one of the best independent films I saw that year, and I eagerly waited to see what Bahrani was going to do which his next film, and I'm pleased to be able to say that with Chop Shop, Bahrani has a solid follow-up. With Chop Shop, which premiered at Cannes, Bahrani carries on the thematic elements he explored in Man Push Cart -- the gritty, cinema verite style, the cast of unknowns, and the telling of a story from the realm of invisible people, the kind of people the well-heeled classes ignore (unless they're filling some need for them, like scrubbing their toilets or serving their coffee and bagels) - or simply pretend don't exist at all. In Chop Shop, Bahrani introduces us to Alejandro, Ale for short (newcomer Alejandra Polanco), a 12-year-old Latino orphan struggling to survive on the streets of New York with his 16-year-old sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzalez). Ale's world is the destitute Iron Triangle on the outskirts of Queens, home to junkyards, repair garages and auto salvage shops. It's a world so different from the Upper East side of New York City, just a 45 minute (or so) subway ride away, that it might was well be in a different country.
In addition to the obvious parallels with the world we see in Man Push Cart, what we see of Ale's existence in the chop shop world reminded me a lot of the world of Mohammed Haithem, the 11-year-old mechanic's apprentice we meet in the first segment of James Longley's Oscar-nommed documentary, Iraq in Fragments. Whether this was deliberate or simply the natural result of telling the stories, one real and one fictional, of two lost boys, I'm not sure, but that a world like Ale's exists in our country of supposed plenty in the same city where parents shell out $20,000 a year for kindergarten and fight for the privilege makes Ale's story as Dickensian and tragic as that of a real boy half a world away.
In this rough-and-tumble world, young Ale scrapes out a living working for various chop shops, hauling parts, acting as a gopher the the mechanics, and occasionally being allowed to try his hand at buffing out dents and polishing. Ale is lean, wiry and hungry to make a break for himself and his sister; he scores them sleeping space inside one of the garages -- a tiny room, but it's safe, and there's a bed, a microwave, a mini-fridge and an indoor bathroom, so by the standards of a street kid, these are luxurious accommodations. Ale, for all his young years, is a human perpetual motion machine, working from the early morning hours at the chop shops, to hawking illegal copies of DVDs at night (in Man Push Cart, Ahmad sold porn DVDs on the side for extra cash).
Razvi makes an appearance here as Ahmad, one of the tough characters Ale faces on a daily basis. These guys aren't mean to Ale, really -- they treat him with a rough sort of affection, like a gang of occasionally bullying older brothers and uncles. They like the kid, so long as he makes himself useful and doesn't get in the way too much, and they're willing to pay him to work backbreaking, sweaty hours -- money that Ale desperately needs to stay out of the sight of the social services system so that he can live independently with his sister. Ale probably figures he can take care of himself better than NYCs Child Protective Services would, and if you read the headlines on a regular basis, he's probably not far off the mark. There are a lot of kids like Ale roaming the hidden corners of New York City, doing what they can to survive; at least Ale's not prostituting himself in Central Park, so in that respect he's one of the lucky ones.
It's shocking to think that kids like Ale can be found abundantly in America's big cities, part of the underbelly that feeds the machinery of society, like the kids working in sweat shops to make cheap clothing for families in the suburbs, or illegal immigrants working the meat factories, keeping the beef in our fast-food burgers, or the migrants laboring the harvest circuit making sure we have strawberries for our shortcake. Bahrani doesn't proselytize, though, he just tells Ale's story, lets us peek inside his life -- and, by extension, the lives of other kids just like him -- and lets Ale's life stand as its own testimony.
Ale carrys the weight of the world on his scrawny shoulders, and in Palanco, Bahrani found the perfect young actor to play the part. Either the kid is a very good natural actor, or Bahrani is a very good director of actors with limited experience (I suspect a little of both, because Razvi, who was also an unknown when Bahrani cast him in Man Push Cart, turned in a similarly understated performance and continues to grow as an actor here). Palanco, for all his young years, manages to convey the simmering, just-under-the-surface rage and desperation that drive Ale -- his wary watchfulness, his frenetic need to work constantly and squirrel away cash in coffee cans, and his anger at, and ultimately reluctant acceptance of, his sister's choice to prostitute herself to bring in more cash.
As Ale saves up to buy his sister her own food service van (his dream of "the good life") Bahrani holds the carrot of freedom from a life of drudgery enticingly just out of the boy's reach throughout the film, building Ale's tension without feeling contrived). What Bahrani knows (along with the other adults in his life) is that there is no end to drugery for Ale; there might be a different kind of drudgery down the road for him, but his dream of escaping his life for a better one is tragically unrealistic. As with Man Push Cart, Bahrani ends his film and Ale's story on an ambigious -- but somewhat symbolically hopeful -- note, leaving it to the viewer to figure out how what Ale's future might hold.
Chop Shop has two public screenings remaining at TIFF, on Wednesday, September 12 at 12:00PM and Friday, September 14 at 10:00AM.