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Isamar Gonzales and Alejandro Polanco in Chop Shop.   

“At 9, Alejandro witnessed a murder in a bodega on his street—one night filming, sirens went off and he was freaking out, and I remembered that,” says Bahrani, whose scene called for Alejandro’s character to discover his sister having sex in a car with a strange man. “I gave the guy a fake gun. I said, ‘Hold this to Izzy’s head.’ The moment comes, Alejandro saw that gun, and he freaked out—he attacked that motherfucker, cut his nose, ripped his shirt. And that’s the take I used. Now, tell me: Is that fiction or documentary?”

When I suggest that, either way, maybe that’s a bit much for a 12-year-old, Bahrani just smiles. “He freaked out, and then minutes later he’s laughing about it,” he says. “He’s so resilient, so tough.”

To Bahrani, this is the only way. “You want to put in the real effort, get a real teacher, not a movie star. Not Ryan Gosling. He ruins [Half Nelson]. The whole film, he looks like he wants to get laid.”

Bahrani doesn’t exactly dislike Hollywood’s happy endings; he distrusts them. He won’t let it show, but this tough, streetwise director is also a closet romantic, prone to quoting the Sufi poet Rumi. In some way, his films are also inspirational stories—not of success, but of endurance. Bahrani demands that uplift be rendered on a more human scale—and so persuasively that even a tough-minded realist like himself can believe in it. “I think that’s part of why I root my films in such a realism that it becomes palpable,” he says. “I wish that I had the resilience of Alejandro, that I was that nonjudgmental. I wish I could be like my films.”

Chop Shop
Koch Lorber Films. NR.
Opens February 27 at Film Forum.


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