With his second feature film, Chop Shop, director Ramin Bahrani carries on his theme of exploring the "invisible people" of society that he started with his first film, Man Push Cart, which played Sundance (and other fests) in 2006. Where Man Push Cart showed a cross-section of the life of a former Pakistani pop star reduced to selling doughnuts and coffee to busy Manhattanites, in Chop Shop Bahrani shows us the life of a young Latino boy who lives and works in the Iron Triangle district of New York City. Bahrani took time out of pre-prod for his latest film, Solo, to chat with Cinematical by phone about Chop Shop, Man Push Cart, and his unique style of making films.
Cinematical: Both Man Push Cart and Chop Shop have the similar thematic element of focusing on people whose lives most people don't spend a lot of energy thinking about -- the guy who sells them coffee and bagels on their way to work, the street kid hustling in a chop shop. Why the focus on these "invisible" people?
Ramin Bahrani: I don't know how you feel about this, and I don't know what the reaction is going to be to Chop Shop when it's released in the States, when more people in the States see this film. I think both these films are about immigrant-type characters: in Chop Shop, Ale is young enough that he maybe could have been born here, or if he and Isamar immigrated they were very young, that was left deliberately ambiguous -- but I don't think that's the essential tissue of the film. I just feel like I'm tired of seeing the same independent films being made over and over again. This "mumblecore" stuff that's popular right now -- I'm not interested in these stories about these really attractive white kids, and their really attractive friends, and their problems. I'm interested in these groups of people, the people you don't see featured so much in films, and that's why I focus on them.
I see the connection between these characters in my films, and the kind of people who will see the film – mostly white, educated, the bourgeois, you know? Not that there's anything wrong with those people at all, it's just that they're the most likely demographic to see independent films at all. I'd like to see someone figure out how to market a film like Chop Shop to Hispanic school-age kids, but that's just not reality.
But as a filmmaker I don't see it as my job to connect those pieces of society. There is a connection between the screen and the viewer, and how the viewer reacts to it, but I'm not interested in why that chop shop exists, or why Ahmad's character exists, or why the taxi driver (in his next film, Solo) exists. I'm not a moral filmmaker, there's no moral message in the end of my films, there's no moral question. The characters are pretty pragmatic. In Chop Shop, Ale is involved in many things that people watching the film may find immoral or illegal, and they may be confused about why there's no judgment in the film, why there's no good or bad in the film. But it's who he is, he's surviving, and he's a kid – he doesn't make those judgments. That's just where he is, and I just think it's not my place to judge them.