My Ramin Bahrani conundrum

7 August 2010

Ever since his debut feature, “Man Push Cart” (2005), the writer-director Ramin Bahrani has been a hero of mine — showing what I think is an unparalleled sensitivity for those otherwise invisible members of American society, and telling unexpected and utterly compelling stories in a riveting ultra-realistic style.  My favorite remains “Chop Shop” (2007) with the amazing Alejandro Polanco as Ále, a 12-year-old uneducated kid who uses all his smarts to hustle at myriad different jobs, socking away a little money to improve his lot and that of his 16-year-old sister, Izzy.  I can’t think of another American director who makes such fine films opening up these worlds for us — the hardscrabble lives of immigrants, the unique forms of friendship amongst the poor, the Sisyphean work habits and depressing bedsits of people using every ounce of self-denial to ascend just one rung of that American dream ladder.  Just one film of Bahrani’s will make you want to vomit at the idea of a Tom Cruise vehicle.  So what’s my conundrum?  He makes yet another director who can’t create a fully-realized female character over the course of three magnificent films.

I don’t want any misunderstanding here:  each one of his films is terrific, and “Chop Shop” is a masterpiece.  Roger Ebert proclaimed Bahrani “the director of the decade,” an honor all the more poignant because his films show exactly who became society’s losers during the 2000s, as the über-rich got richer.  He takes non-actors and unknown faces like Polanco, Ahmad Razvi from “Man Push Cart,” and the Ivoirian actor Souléyman Sy Savané from “Goodbye Solo,” a choice that combines with his near-documentary style to produce tales that seem exceptionally real.  If you anticipate a cliché in the narrative, you’re likely to find yourself mistaken.  Bahrani is especially entranced by the structures of logic created by his characters; in “Goodbye Solo,” for example, the taxi driver cannot understand how an old man might not have family to take care of him because that’s a responsibility Senegalese families embrace happily.  In “Chop Shop,” Ále is willing to do anything — anything — to make a few bucks as part of his scheme to make a better life, with little attention to what’s legal.  But he’s got firm notions about what his sister Izzy should do.      

Perhaps because we’re focused on Ále, Izzy remains a mystery throughout the film — just like the female characters in his other features.  I find it exasperating that someone as eminently talented as Bahrani can’t write a female protagonist — or even a three-dimensional subsidiary character.  This conundrum was made even more clear to me after watching “Amreeka” (2009) by first-time director Cherien Dabis, a film about a Palestinian woman (Nisreen Faour) who immigrates with her teenaged son to rural Illinois in search of a better life, only to discover even more difficulties in the post-9/11 U.S.  In some ways, Dabis chose the more difficult task:  it’s hard to come up with a story about immigrants adjusting to a new life that doesn’t recycle old, familiar narratives.  As a result, despite its immensely appealing lead actor, the film struggles too hard to find a feel-good story rather than go after something less expected.  I mention “Amreeka” not to slam it (it gets a 90% good rating amongst top critics at RottenTomatoes.com, after all), since at least this first-time director is working to explore the unique experiences of brown-skinned women at the margins of American society.  Rather, I want to pressure Bahrani — himself the child of immigrants — to move beyond his comfort zone in the perpetual elaboration of male psyches.

Bahrani has enormous cultural capital to make such a move.  It’s time for someone like him to help Americans see that not all women are white and all people of color are men.  Considering the fact that the lack of women onscreen is being increasingly publicized by organizations such as the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, this is the right time to do it.  (What are the chances?)

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