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Sunday, February 26, 2017
Ramin Bahrani | Chop Shop
valley of ashes
by Douglas Messerli
Ramin Bahrani (writer and director) Chop Shop / 2007
American born Ramin Bahrani, of Iranian descent, has become one of our country’s most noted film directors, devoting most of his brilliant works to the poor immigrants who, despite their magnificent displays of epic ambition and attempts at assimilating into American culture, are outsiders who have a near impossible time at being allowed “in” or simply given any open opportunity.
His first film, Man Push Cart presented a near Sisyphean struggle simply for daily survival. His second film, Chop Shop, presents with a much younger—and amazingly tougher—young man, Ale (performed by the startling fresh, Alejandro Polanco)—a street kid “find” who cannot be matched, who survives through nearly any job he can take on, including daily labor jobs, selling candy on subways, dealing out pirated DVDs, and, throughout most of the film, working for Rob Sowulski, a somewhat sympathetic owner of an auto repair shop in the Willets Point area of Queens, once, as Roger Ebert reminds, described by F. Scott Fitzgerald as “The Valley of the Ashes.”
Here, for a cheap and quick fix, anyone with the money can get a quick paint job for their car, or have a broken mirror, bumper, or front window fixed. The material used is mostly stolen from other autos subject to overnight chop-ups. But daily, hundreds of desiring drivers enter the zone to find the right shop to fix up their cars. Ale gets $5.00 for every car he steers to Rob’s chop, and further money for helping run for materials and actually working with the professionals on the repairs. It is a Dickensian world in which there are utterly no questions about the use of child labor.
But Ale is more than the tough exterior he exudes. He is a true dreamer who, quite amazingly, and secretly, is saving every cent he makes to buy a run-down food truck so that he and his sister can create their own lives through a magic restaurant on wheels.
Through his young friend Carlos, he meets a man who is willing to sell a dilapidated truck for only $4,500—a sum almost unimaginable for a young boy, but which he is utterly determined to raise. Yes, he too reverts to what some might describe as criminal behavior, loosing the rims off of tires of the cars parked at nearby Shea stadium, peeling off bumpers, and reselling them to other chop shops. He works nights to help in quick breakdowns of stolen cars with the oily next door owner, Ahmad Razvi as Ahmad. He even robs a stadium event-attending woman of her purse, and steals from his own sister, who—in what is clearly the most painful of his recognitions in this film—he has observed working at nights as a prostitute. Almost in tears, he still says nothing; his world is one of desperation, and he is determined despite his total outside status, to change it.
As in all of Bahrani’s films I’ve seen, any hope that these endlessly-hoping figures might have is done in by the dominant society. Carlo’s uncle has been willing even to cheat a young boy, as Ahmad reveals that the truck, even if it were able to be refurbished on the outside, would cost more than $10,000 to transform into a permit-passing food truck.
The totally believing boy has been duped, and has no choice but to offer it, too, up to the chop shop for $1,000. He has almost nothing to show for his months of sacrifices. And he cannot possibly offer his sister a way out of her distillatory life.
Over the years, Bahrani has become a major voice of the American conscience; and I only wish that all of our leaders might see and feel for his films the way I do.
Los Angeles, February 26, 2017