By David D'Arcy
Chop Shop takes us into the streets of Willett's Point, a section of Queens behind Shea Stadium that you might not know unless you steal cars or have tried to get one fixed cheaply. Ramin Bahrani's second feature (after his much-praised Man Push Cart, 2005) looks at life on these streets through the character of Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), a kid of 12 who scavenges a living off the neighborhood of garages and struggles to make a life for his older sister, 16, Isamar (Isamar Gonzalez).
These streets look as mean as anything in Scorsese - the primitive conditions make you think of Gangs of New York rather than anything as clean as Mean Streets or Taxi Driver - yet the film reveals a community of all sorts of businesses that find a harmony in near-anarchy. This could be a place where roads are unpaved and the police don't venture much. An orphan, Alejandro is a relatively lucky kid, enterprising enough to find a job and a place to live, and to stay a step a head of the predators who prey on these street kids.
Chop Shop is not a documentary, but thanks to intrepid camerawork weaving through the site by Michael Simmonds, it has a tactile grasp of what everyday business is like in Willett's Point, as the cars pile in and out on unpaved roads. Crucial here is the gritty sound of the place, where the noise from the cars, the subway, and the LaGuardia-bound airplanes overhead grinds and rumbles on endlessly.
The atmosphere is on target in Bahrani's film. I know Willett's Point from spending time there 20 years ago, researching a story about merchants for National Public Radio when the place was threatened with demolition after Donald Trump and Mario Cuomo concocted a plan to put a new stadium there. Like so much of what displaces real people, this amounted to a trophy project for a few zillionaires and their politician friends.
The place is still endangered by schemes for new projects there - most recently, Mike Bloomberg targeted the site for an Olympic venue. More immediately, its people and their subsistence are endangered. In Alejandro, Bahrani and the plucky Alejandro Polanco have found a balance between the indifferent practicality of street poverty and the young boy's dedication to his sister, without an ounce of sentimentality, bounced around by the cars. It's a cinematic image of the proverbial school of hard knocks, where freedom is often the freedom to wash another windshield. Yet there's something tricky here in assuming that this is universal, even if Willet's Point looks like comparable places in Mexico or Egypt, and the place is filled with immigrants. Alejandro is atypical. Kids are not this enterprising.
Both of Bahrani's features are stories of the streets. In Man Push Cart, a Pakistani immigrant (who defies every stereotype) pushes a cart like Sisyphus through the caverns of lower Manhattan, less violent than Los Olvidados or Pixote, less cloying than Oliver Twist and the Disney clones of it.
Don't expect a happy ending. Don't even expect an ending here, but the absence of an ending is the presumption of some hope for these characters.
I recently spoke with Ramin Bahrani in New York.
Did you approach this film any differently than you did Man Push Cart?
Along with the cinematographer, Michael Simmonds, we wanted to be less present as filmmakers. We wanted to erase ourselves and not be as visible as we felt we were in Man Push Cart. We really wanted the camera to be not noticeable. It is not a Dardenne Brothers, violent shaky camera, and there's also an incredibly complicated mise en scene, with blocking that the actors were doing 30 times in a row. But you don't really feel the camera. You don't really notice that suddenly it's gone from a one-shot to a two-shot, to an over-the-shoulder, and then turned into another wide shot. It just kind of feels like some stuff happened.
After the screening in Cannes, Abbas Kiarostami told me that he loved the mise en scene - he said he was impressed by it. He said it felt like an accident to him. And he said it felt "like a loose shirt dangling on my body."
For what audience did you make this film?
I'm hoping that kids are going to watch the film. The idea first came into my head in Cannes, when the screening ended and Atom Egoyan was there, praising the film, and he said that he wanted his son to see the film, who was around Alejandro's age, and he told me, "If you have a smart distributor, he will make sure that kids can see this film." I think it might be great for kids who aren't living in the situation that Alejandro is, who actually have more at their disposal socially and economically, it may prove enlightening to them.
The problem is that kids don't see films.
The Film Forum has been reaching out, as has Koch Lorber, to New York schools. Some of them have agreed to do group ticket sales and bring their kids as part of the educational experience, and to talk about it. I'm sure they'll also sell it to a TV channel.
Were you always intending to shoot Chop Shop in New York?
Definitely. The idea first came from going to the location. When I was editing Man Push Cart, Michael Simmons, the cinematographer of Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, told me I should come with him to where he had to get his car fixed, because he thought I would be interested in the location. From the first time I saw Willett's Point, I told him, "We're going to make a film here. I don't know what it's about yet, but this is going to be the location of the next film."
These places are endangered areas in a city like New York, which is zoning them out of existence. Did you want these auto shops to be iconic instances of the spirit of New York, or a spirit of New York?
One of the reasons I pushed myself to make the film so quickly was that I was working under the fear that by this [time next] year the location wouldn't exist, that it would have been re-zoned and razed. I wanted it to exist in my film, and for people to know that it did exist. The references to this place go back in literature to The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald mentions it. He talks about it as the Valley of the Ashes. As Gatsby is driving into the city, he drives past it. He talks about it then as more of a dumping ground, and he sees mounds of ash and smoke billowing up.
How did the script take shape?
The more I spent time there, the more I focused on the young boys who were working there. There was a sign across the street from Shea Stadium that said, "Make dreams happen," and I began to wonder, "What sort of dreams would a young boy have here?" I had an idea about a boy and his mom, and when I met my co-writer in Europe, she had the idea of changing it from a mom to a sister, and changed the whole focus of the film.
Little by little, she and I worked on drafts of the script, and I began spending more and more time at the location, and [gathering] more and more details and things that could be introduced into the story that could be real, things that could keep the story moving dramatically that wouldn't feel like they had come from an outside source. Then I cast Alejandro and Izzy and made shifts in their dialogue, based on the way the kids actually spoke.
One of the things that I did with Michael Simmonds, the cameraman, was that he and I went with the kids, and maybe one or two of the assistants, and we shot the entire film on a handi-cam, for about five weeks before the film was ever made, and we were holding the camera inches away from the actors' faces, so they would just forget about it. We were also filming people around that areas whom we knew we would be filming a month later.
That helped for many reasons. It helped me refine the script, to see what was needed and what wasn't needed, but it also got the kids completely comfortable with the camera, acting in a real-live location with people following them, and also it got the people who lived there used to us arriving. And after a while, I would bring three or four people, along with my cameraman, just so they got used to us. Even if they had nothing to do with what we were doing, I would bring them, so that the people in Willett's Point would get used to there being a crowd of people. So when the film was actually being made with a high-definition camera - now we had a 14-person crew, instead of a 5-person crew - nobody really seemed to care. It was the same thing, basically, but now there was a boom guy chasing someone.
There was so much movement; it was hard to tell how you were able to get a consistent level of sound.
We spent a huge amount of time building sound effects, most of them that I had recorded live on location. So if we had a banging sound, we thought about what kind of banging sound it should be, what rhythm it should have. When a kid is going to the truck stop at the end of the film, and you're hearing cars going by in the distance, some of them are playing at 50 percent slow motion, and with light drizzle on the ground - that has a different kind of feeling.
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