Saturday, May 28, 2016
The Auteurs #55: Ramin Bahrani
Among one of the new crop of filmmakers to emerge in the 2000s, Ramin Bahrani is among a group of new filmmakers who doesn’t just explore the struggles that people go through everyday but also for the fact that he showcases a sense of realism that isn’t seen often in American cinema. While he is from an Iranian background, the man exemplifies not just immigrants and those who aren’t part of American society but also working-class Americans struggling to adapt to the new world. With five feature films under his belt, Bahrani becomes an unlikely voice not just for Americans but also display films that audiences around the world can relate to.
Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on March 20, 1975, Ramin Bahrani was the son of Iranian parents who had immigrated to the country in the 1970s. Like many Iranians who had come to America looking for a better life, they would contend with prejudice as it would intensify during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Bahrani would also see the struggle of not just the way immigrants struggle to adapt to a new world but also in surviving as it wasn’t just his parents where he saw that struggle but also in other immigrants living in the South. In his discovery of cinema, Bahrani would be intrigued by not just the post-war neo-realist films of Italy but also the films of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. Bahrani would attend Columbia University in New York City in the early and mid-1990s where he would learn about film and eventually receive his BA there. From the late 1990s and early 2000s, Bahrani would create short films to hone his craft.
Man Push Cart
Inspired by his surroundings around New York City as well as Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, Bahrani decides to make a film about the immigrant experience as it would revolve around a Pakistani musician who drags his food kiosk all over New York City. The idea itself has an air of realism as it was the kind of film that Hollywood wouldn’t tell as Bahrani chose to produce, write, edit, and direct the film as he would get independent funding for the film. Since he would shoot the film on location in the city with the aid of cinematographer Michael Simmonds who would find ways to shoot the film with hidden cameras to create something as if it was a fly-on-the-wall point of view. With Simmonds and others to be part of a small crew, Bahrani would get Ahmad Razvi in the lead role of Ahmad as this once-popular musician in his native Pakistan who is in America struggling to make ends meet and pay child support as his son is living with the family of his late wife.
The cast would also include Leticia Dolera and Charles Daniel Sandoval in key roles that Ahmad would encounter. The script would play a lot into Ahmad’s attempt to survive and find hope despite working on a kiosk where he would be given false promises by a Pakistani yuppie and memories about his late wife and the life he once had. Bahrani also asks big question about Ahmad’s life as he struggles to make money where he also sells bootleg DVDs on the side. Especially as its third act would have Ahmad take a journey of his own where it plays into the elements of neorealist aesthetics of post-war Italian cinema. Yet, Bahrani would add something that also play into the experience of the immigrant living in America as it shows that not all of them play by the rules such as the yuppie character that Ahmad meets who is really Americanized for all of the wrong reasons. It says a lot into not just Ahmad’s own alienation but also for the fact that he couldn’t rely on fellow countrymen in a world that is very harsh.
The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September of 2005 as it drew rave reviews as it would later receive the FIPRESCI prize later that year at the London Film Festival. Following its U.S. film festival premiere in January of 2006 at the Sundance Film Festival, the film would finally be given a limited theatrical release in the fall of 2006 where it was championed by the famed film critic Roger Ebert. Ebert’s praise would help give the film more attention as did Bahrani himself who would receive lots of acclaim for his work.
The critical success of his debut film gave Bahrani the attention of studios and producers who wanted to work with him as he would receive funding and support from various independent film producers for his next project. With the aid of co-writer and friend Bahareh Azimi, the film would once again be set in New York City but in the area of Queens as it relates to a young boy working at a local chop shop in the hopes of doing something good for himself and his older sister. Re-teaming with Michael Simmonds to shoot the film, Bahrani receives the service of production designer Richard A. Wright who was known for his work with David Gordon Green. For the casting, Bahrani would once again go for lesser-known/unknown actors or non-actors for the role in the same tradition of one of his influences in Robert Bresson.
Shooting on location in Queens, Bresson wouldn’t just cover the world of chop shops but also a boy’s desire to create a future for himself despite the fact that he is forced to forgo his childhood to survive. It begins with a simple dream where Bahrani would cast Alejandro Polancano in the lead role of Ale despite his lack of experience. The lack of experience would help add to the realism of the performance where Bahrani would also bring in Ahmad Razvi to play a small role who would be crucial for not just Ale’s development but also to come face to face with the real world at hand. A reality for a 12-year old boy trying to live in Queens, where everyone who doesn’t fit into a certain demographic that is defined as American, is something that he would have to live with. Especially in the decisions that his sister would make that just add to a growing wound he would endure.
The film would make its premiere in late May of 2007 at the Cannes Film Festival in France playing at the Director’s Fortnight section to great acclaim as it’s festival run in Toronto in the fall of 2007 and another major festival showing at the Berlin Film Festival in early 2008 added to the film’s growing critical reputation. The film would receive a limited theatrical release in late February of 2008 where it receive great reviews including another rave from Roger Ebert who would later include the film in a top ten list of the best films of the 2000s. A year later, the film would be nominated for 3 Independent Spirit Awards where Bahrani won the Someone to Watch prize.
Having already accumulated two back-to-back critical successes and praise in the film festival circuit, Bahrani decides to return home to Winston-Salem, North Carolina for his next feature film that wouldn’t just cover similar themes from his previous films but also play into aspects of mysticism. The film would revolve around a Senegalese cab driver who is asked by an old man to take him to the mysterious Blowing Rock peak in the mountain in North Carolina where he plans to kill himself on a specific day. Along the way, the two become friends where they learn about each other despite the old man’s reluctance. Collaborating with Chop Shop co-write Bahareh Azimi for the script, the film would be a study of not just the idea of optimism and cynicism but also the ideas of the real world where this Senegalese man tries to do his best in his desire to become a flight attendant so he can provide for his family.
Once again teaming with cinematographer Michael Simmonds for the project and going for that approach in casting unknowns and non-actors that would include Soulemayne Sy Savane in the lead role of Solo. Bahrani would take a major risk in getting famed character actor Red West for the role of the old man William. Inspired by the films of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, Bahrani wanted to go for something that is loose in terms of the narrative while the filmmaking would be less restrained for more controlled shots as opposed to some of the handheld work of his previous films. Another aspect that was becoming common with his film was not going for any film score to be added in the post-production by just capturing whatever is played where Bahrani wanted to capture much of the realism in Winston-Salem. Especially as it’s a city that is this mixture of people ranging from Africans, African-Americans, Arabs, Anglo-Americans, Hispanic, and all sorts of people in a city that is a cross between the modern world and old America.
The film made its premiere on September 2008 at the Venice Film Festival as it won the FRIPRESCI prize by critics as it would become a festival hit in the following weeks as it was a hit at the Toronto Film Festival during the same month. The film would later receive a limited theatrical release in the March of 2009 in the U.S. as it drew raves from many critics including Roger Ebert and A.O. Scott of the New York Times. While the film did modestly well in its limited, art-house release in the U.S., it did bring a lot of attention to Bahrani as one of the best kept secrets in American independent cinema.
Having attained a wave of critical support as well as a small following among audiences in the world of art-house films and independent cinema. Bahrani was approached by Independent Television Service to create a short film as Bahrani wrote the short with Jenni Jenkins as it would revolve around the travels of a plastic bag. Featuring the same team who worked on his last film, Bahrani would also receive the services of the legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog who would voice the titular character. With his team of collaborators, Bahrani went for something that is very simple but also take a look into the myth that is the Pacific Trash Vortex where some of the plastic bags go to.
The film would make its premiere at the 2009 Venice Film Festival in September of that year where it would also play at other film festivals around the same time such as Telluride and Toronto. After its festival run that features a screening at the 2010 South by Southwest film festival, Bahrani briefly put the film for download on his website free of charge so that audiences can get a glimpse of it.
At Any Price
Having already attained a wealth of major critical support and a devoted cult following for his work, Bahrani knew it was time to make some changes as he wanted to maintain his sense of independence but also try to appeal to a wider audience. In meeting the renowned producer Christine Vachon, Bahrani would get the chance to make his most ambitious film to date as it revolved around a father and son at odds with each other over the former’s ambition in expanding his family’s farming empire in the age of modern agriculture. Writing the project with Hallie Elizabeth Newton, the film wouldn’t just be about the fallacy of ambition but also how pride can nearly blind people.
Having worked with mostly non-professional actors in the past, Bahrani was given the chance to work with some of Hollywood’s big names such as Dennis Quaid as the family patriarch Henry Whipple, Zac Efron as Henry’s son Dean, Kim Dickens as Henry’s wife Irene, then-newcomer Maika Monroe as Dean’s girlfriend Cadence, and Heather Graham as Henry’s mistress Meredith. With Red West also playing a small role as Henry’s father, the film would feature several of Bahrani’s collaborators while he also gained the services of renowned editor Affonso Gonclaves to edit the film. Shot on location in Dekalb, Illinois as Iowa, Bahrani doesn’t just want to explore the world of modern farming but also in the ugly aspects of farmers having to compete with one another and keep up with the world of modernism.
With expectation high, the film made its premiere on August 30, 2012 at the Venice Film Festival where it got a good reception as it would receive screenings weeks later in film festivals in Telluride and Toronto. The film would be given a limited theatrical release by Sony Picture Classics in April 2013 where the film received mixed reviews from critics. Despite another rave from Roger Ebert as well as some for its exploration on the world of modern farming, many critics didn’t enjoy some of the dramatic aspects of the film as it related to the father-son relationship. While it only made less than half-a-million in the box office against the millions of dollars it cost to make. The film did prove that Bahrani still provided a voice as it relates to the trials and tribulations that Americans face no matter who they are.
Bahrani’s most recent feature film isn’t just another exploration of the realities of American life but also what some will do to survive. Starring Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, and Laura Dern, the film revolves around a young man who has been evicted from his home where he makes a shady deal to keep his home by working with the man who evicted him and evict others from their homes. The film would be another ambitious feature of sorts where Bahrani made the film on a $8 million budget yet would be well-received following its premiere at the 2014 Venice Film Festival in late August and a limited release in October of 2015 where the film drew rave reviews.
Having already made five films and with the support of critics and audiences wanting films that says a lot about America that Hollywood doesn’t want to cover. Ramin Bahrani has a unique place in the world of American cinema as a man who tells stories not just about Americans but those trying to capture some aspect of the myth that is the American Dream. Whether or not that myth exists, Bahrani is a filmmaker that is willing to ask if it does exist as his films do display some kind of hope no matter how bleak his films can be.
© thevoid99 2016