The sound of a true American voice

Shorts, ‘Chop Shop’ and Ramin Bahrani at IFS

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Ten years ago at the Sundance Film Festival, a new voice in American cinema was announced. The voice was not loud, but it was clear, and it belonged to the 29-year-old Ramin Bahrani.

Bahrani’s feature debut, Man Push Cart, is a calm and contemplative study of a Pakistani immigrant making his way in New York City as a pushcart vendor. The movie wasn’t a smash hit, but it attracted enough attention for Bahrani to continue making his own unique brand of movies: Chop Shop (2007), Goodbye Solo (2009), At Any Price (2012) and the soon-to-be-released 99 Homes, which played this year’s Sundance.

Bahrani is more than just a filmmaker, he also teaches film directing at Columbia University’s graduate program in New York City. And he will be on hand Feb. 3 at the International Film Series, his visit sponsored by Conference on World Affairs Athenaeum and Roser Visiting Artist Program. He’ll be here to share his knowledge in conjunction with a screening of his short films and Chop Shop. If you have any interest in movies or a desire to make them yourself, then this is not an event to miss.

Bahrani’s career in movies began like most do, in that impressionable age between high school senior and a college freshman.

“I decided to try and become a filmmaker instead of a novelist,” Bahrani says. “I think the decision was made after making my first short film [Backgammon, 1998], realizing how hard it was and wanting to do it again.”

Then in college, Bahrani says he was guided by many key movies that helped shape the way he looked through the lens and into the world. Stanley Kubrick’s films taught him “imagination and intellect”; Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, “to be philosophical”; Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, to be “inner and social”; Abbas Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home? “to be simple”; and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, “to make personal films.”

These few examples serve as a bibliography to Bahrani’s work, and place his movies in context. Referencing Kubrick and Antonioni immediately brings to mind Bahrani’s use of meticulous composition. His movies have style, but not the kind that suffocates moments of spontaneity or performance, which are where his movies are the most moving. Bahrani works closely with his actors (often times non-professionals) in real locations modeled after real situations, drawing out qualities that are intrinsically human.

“Location adds life and forces improvisation. It also adds specificity and detail. But only if you open yourself to location and its mysteries,” Bahrani says. “It’s one of the keys for me. I don’t like to shoot a scene if the location doesn’t speak to me and I spend a lot of time searching for locations and rewriting the script accordingly.”