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The Reeler Blog

Chop of the World

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Chop Shop, a film I've been following since director Ramin Bahrani's arduous casting process over a year ago and its world premiere last May in Cannes, enjoyed its North American bow Monday night in Toronto. It's just about exactly the type of intense, unalloyed glimpse of New York life I expected from the man behind Man Push Cart, that film's diverse portrait of afterhours devastation now brought nearly full-circle to Flushing. There, in the "Iron Triangle" of auto-repair and scrap outposts in the shadow of Shea Stadium, 12-year old orphan Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco) literally hammers out a career --and a home -- in a body shop while his 16-year-old sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzalez) dabbles in prostitution.

Shop around: (L-R) Alejandro Polanco and Carlos Zapata in Chop Shop, which premiered Monday at the Toronto International Film Festival (Photo: Jon Higgins)

Ale's childhood is all but disappeared, his family all but dissolved. The American dream of independence appears within his grasp even as he clings to his willful, increasingly distant sister. The central drama of the boy's life directly refracts that of Man Push Cart's haunted vendor Ahmed, whose early-life successes in Pakistan give way to the early-morning street drudgery of Manhattan; homeless and industrious, young Alejandro's ambition duels with his idealism in broad daylight. The result is a triumph for all involved, none more so than Polanco, whose raw swagger and stillness glow in Bahrani's unblinking eye.

The director's knack for character overlapped his radical sense of place. "What initially inspired me was the location -- how alive it was," Bahrani told his audience following Monday's premiere. "They'd have barbecues, and it was rough and tough but there was also this sense of community that I liked very much. ... I was walking from one location to another, and I saw this guy. I knew him by sight, but we had never talked. He said, 'Come over here.' I said, 'Oh sure. I see you all the time. What's your name?' He said, 'Let me tell you something: The only reason we're letting you do this is because you've been here for one year -- every day.' If Hollywood had gone there, it would have been one or two scenes and they would have paid a lot of money. These guys were basically letting me do it because I'd been there for a year."

He went on to note his tendency to "erase" himself from the directorial process by intensely rehearsing on location for months in advance of production. That time spent in the dusty, baked Iron Triangle -- whose very name served as Bahrani's working title lest some of the area's less hospitable inhabitants bristle at Chop Shop -- clearly establishes the humanity that informs Ale's destitute upbringing.

"I keep reading about how my films are about 'marginal' characters," Bahrani said. "It's been on my mind a lot, because I don't know what that means. I think I'm making films about how nearly 3 billion people in this world live. I don't think they're really 'marginal' characters; I think this is the way that most people live. 'Marginal' characters are in Woody Allen films. And I love Woody Allen -- he's a genius. But the majority of the films coming out of the States are about 1 or 2 percent of the population. So I'm calling that into question." He gestured toward the screen behind him. "I think this is the way most people live: day-to-day and hand-to-mouth."

Posted at September 11, 2007 5:11 PM

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