May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
March 24, 2009
After a century of broadly categorizing people by their gender, ethnicity, race, age, education level, or occupation – all to make sweeping generalizations easier – it seems we’re finally catching onto the fact that people are individuals, and hard to put into boxes.
Case in point: This American Life (which I unabashedly love) often focuses on offbeat or unexpected stories about individuals, and not in ways you might expect. One of my favorite episodes features a reporter who spends time with the Colorado Springs church that (pre-scandal) Ted Haggard pastored, figuring out what they were all about. By the end, she’s confused, unmoored from her assumptions about the people at that church simply by spending time with them. With these kinds of stories, This American Life has grown so popular that it’s spawned an award-winning television show and now a live stage show, simulcast into movie theaters in other cities via HD.
Documentary filmmakers have long told the little stories – one of my favorite stereotype-busting documentaries of recent days was The King of Kong, which followed a class of people that few realize exist: competitive classic video game players. But lately those stories, told through narrative, have been seeping into the American filmmaking scene, and none too soon. Films such as The Visitor and Wendy & Lucy are quiet stories of the oft-overlooked.
Iranian-born director Ramin Bahrani, who grew up in North Carolina and went to school at Columbia, has made it his business to tell the stories of the often overlooked – the people who sometimes function as furniture on the consciousness of the more privileged. Goodbye Solo (opens March 27 in limited release) is his third feature.
His first, Man Push Cart, which premiered at Venice Film Festival in 2005, was a film about a Pakistani rock star who moved to New York and now sells coffee and donuts from a cart. The follow-up was Chop Shop, a heartbreaking story of two teenage siblings trying to build and sustain a life in the Willets Point, an area of Queens behind Shea Stadium full of autobody shops. They’re about poverty and immigration, but they’re not really trying to make a point about justice. These are just people. I walk by many coffee and donut carts each day, and I see little kids selling candy bars on the subways, but until I watched Bahrani’s work I never gave them much thought.
Both of these films presented stories of people with difficult lives scratching out a living in New York City. For Goodbye Solo, Bahrani moved the setting to North Carolina and followed a Senegalese cab driver of indefatigable optimism – Solo – and his unlikely friendship with a lonely, regret-filled old man named William. Solo works hard to provide for his family, celebrates, plays football, drives a cab, and tries to break through the wall around William. He begins to suspect that William’s plans are darker than he expected, and he struggles to know how to respond. It’s riveting and heartbreaking.
What’s wonderful about Bahrani’s work is his complete lack of sentimentality or romance. His protagonists are people we’d normally overlook – a guy who sells coffee from a cart, a kid selling candy bars on the subway, a taxi driver – and he focuses on minority communities (Pakistani immigrants, Hispanic kids from Queens, a Senegalese immigrant).
But he’s also not trying to make a statement about justice, immigration, or poverty. These are just people. These are their lives. They’re also unequivocally tragic stories, but not because of circumstances – just because life is both comic and tragic.
Bahrani’s films have yet to make inroads with American audiences, despite their settings. They remind one of the neorealists and of the films of the Dardennes brothers (in fact, A.O. Scott recently apparently read my mind and said all these things in his article on Neo-Neo Realism). Mercifully, they restore dignity to their subjects, because they treat them as individuals, not as types or props to make a point. Many filmmakers would do well to pay attention.
Alissa Wilkinson teaches at the King’s College in New York City and edits Comment. She and her husband Tom like the brunch at Dizzy’s in Brooklyn best.