Feb 10, 2009
The smart use of talented kids in film and television is a guaranteed formula for success. We will never forget Gary Coleman in the television series Different Strokes, Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense (1999,) and so many others in advertising. It automatically grabs our attention and wins our hearts, even if the story is not so good. But nobody since Larry Clark/Harmony Korine’s Kids (1995) went as far to depict street youth drama authentically as Iranian-American writer-director-editor Ramin Bahrani did in Chop Shop (2007, co-written with France-based Bahareh Azimi), his second feature film after his widely praised debut with Man Push Cart (2005.) I dare to say this is one of the best filmed portraits about the life of a child worker. That’s how effective Bahrani is in this shocking, simple but multi-layered story, winner of the “Someone To Watch” award from the Independent Spirits Awards, and official selection in Cannes, Berlin, and Toronto.
Chop Shop, a flawless piece of street realism, is the story of Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco, a non-professional actor chosen from 2,000 kids), a twelve-year-old Latino street orphan in Willets Point, also known as the "Iron Triangle," an industrial neighborhood teeming with auto-body repair shops, scrap yards, and garbage dumps in Queens, New York. Alejandro, like other young boys in the area, works at one of the “chop shops” that line the street. He spends his days in an adult world, running errands, convincing customers to come to the garage where he works instead of a competitor's, and learning how to paint and repair cars. Alejandro’s life brightens with the long-awaited arrival of his sixteen-year-old sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), who moves in with him in the tiny room that he has found for them in the back of the shop. Knowing that creating a better life for the two of them is their best bet at staying together, Alejandro finds her a job in a food van cooking and selling meals to the workers in the Iron Triangle. With a mixture of childlike naiveté and adult ambition, Alejandro begins obsessively saving his money to buy a mobile food van as the two dream about owning and running a small business of their own.
Alejandro not only works as an adult, but he also lives like one: his little room is a bachelor’s pad of sorts, a luxury for a street kid. He makes popcorn at night in an old microwave oven, takes a soda from the fridge like a tired worker with his beer, he does pull-ups from a cupboard and excercises his small but toned body. He stares out his only window, with an unusual and dull view to the interior of the chop shop. Nevertheless, rather than bored his gaze suggests that he is wondering if another life is possible, perhaps dreaming of being a Mets’ player, a chop shop owner, or who knows what. One of the remarkable things he has is his positive attitude and strenght: most children his age wouldn’t survive his way of life alone. He’s always pushing forward, trying to have fun. He learns from other employees, he always pays attention, and he even manages the finances for himself and his older sister. Their age difference doesn’t prevent him from being the one who set the rules in their home, making sure every little thing they have is secure.
Yes, this boy on the verge of adolescence is the head of the household, and must deal with all the challenges he faces in this complex world: the dangerous environment, the disappointment of a failed business, and working double-journal at night until he falls exhausted. His ambitions and the heartbreaking discovery of his sister prostituting herself lead him to take his brother-father-boyfriend-advisor role very seriously. He shows her how to make extra money as an indirect way to take her away from her parallel life. Isamar’s prostitution is like Alejandro’s thefts, each taking their own risks for the big dream. Yet in this though adult world, Alejandro also has time to be a kid, to laugh and enjoy some glimpses of life: going out for a decent meal, tickle fights with Isamar, or baseball with his buddy Carlos (Carlos Zapata) behind Shea stadium. A few steps away, we see with mixed feelings a shocking contrast: between the street kids and their makeshift baseball game while in the stadium multi-millionaire players become richer regardless of the final score.
The incisive cinematography by Michael Simmonds has a very important role; to be Alejandro’s roommate, consciousness, shadow and soul. Bluring the boundary between documentary and fiction, the cinematography becomes another inhabitant of the Willets Point multicultural community. Every single shot is so smooth and unobtrusive that from the beginning we feel we’re there, but unaware of the camera’s presence. Nothing stops Alejandro in his dream to buy that old ruined van, but he underestimates his unfortunate and obvious lack of experience: even if he lives as an adult, he’s still a child. In one of the most powerful paradoxes in the story, he helps to chop his own investments and savings, living in the flesh the dismantling of his dreams. His hope is untouchable, though his fate unchangeable.
Bahrani deploys a savage beauty, unique sensitivity, and complexity of characters that reminds of Abbas Kiarostami, one of his biggest influences – Kiarostami himself embraced him after the premiere at Cannes. It’s not a coincidence that Bahrani worked with amateur actors. The shop owner, Rob Sowulski, plays himself – he met Bahrani when he was scouting locations. Polanco and Gonzales, both from Puerto Rico, attend the same school, and she was the close friend of his sister. The most experienced of the cast is Ahmad Razvi, who also starred in Bahrani’s debut Man Push Cart - a very strong presence who doesn’t seem like an amateur actor at all. Though many times it looks improvised and natural, every scene was carefully based on the script. If there was space for improvisation it was rehearsed over and over during months where the actors put their own words in the language that worked for them, and finally shot with many takes. The best example of how Bahrani handled the documentary-fiction border happened during training before shooting: Alejandro got paid $5 for every car he pulled in, just as the kids who work there do.
The way that the relationship between Ahmad and Alejandro changes (sometimes Ahmad is the big brother, other times buddy, and other times tough employer), makes us wonder if it’s good or wrong that they treat him like an adult. Are they using him and keeping him out of school? Are they teaching him and helping him to survive in a tough but controlled environment? A flip-flop floats in a puddle of rain, like Alejandro wanders in the the darkness where he will discover a difficult truth about his sister Isamar. But although he doesn’t like what he sees, he understands. Life is hard for everyone, but love is stronger, and among all things he has, Isamar is the most precious. One day things will likely change, and they will fly like the pigeons they feed. This film is not for popping corn. I will leave it in its natural state and feed it to the pigeons.
(Written for Remezcla)