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And finally... Ramin Bahrani

Film
Society
Ramin Bahrani

What inspires your films?

Curiosity, finding out about worlds I don’t know, and asking: ‘How do we, how should we, live?’

You’re an unusual US filmmaker – you make films about work.

Yes, I do. About the life you have if you’re a pushcart vendor on the street, or a kid working in a chop shop, dismantling old cars, or, as in 99 Homes, in real estate, foreclosing on people’s homes.

And about surviving on the edge – a Pakistani or a Latino kid in New York; a Senegalese taxi driver in Carolina; an unemployed carpenter in Florida.

In American films, people are cops, celebrities of some kind, superheroes…

You don’t have a Hollywood way of seeing things. Your parents are Iranian – does that influence you?

I suppose I have two ways of seeing things – the American and the Iranian. I spoke Iranian first. My dad used to talk about growing up in a far-flung southern village without electricity. My parents were both passionate about Iranian poetry and history. Many of the US writers and filmmakers I admire were immigrants or the children or grandchildren of immigrants – John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, Billy Wilder, Martin Scorsese. Who else but Scorsese could have made The Godfather? He grew up with it, he understood that kind of a family, life in the kitchen, weddings.

So what would you say your films are about?

I was hoping you would tell me! What do you see?

I see empathy, understanding – of new arrivals, outsiders. We really get inside their lives. Though in 99 Homes, there’s a shift. That fast-paced opening 30 minutes, lots happening…

The brutality of the system. One hit after another.

It’s aggressive capitalism, and it’s overt, whereas in your earlier films it was behind the scenes. 99 Homes overtly, and unusually, attacks the US system.

Yes, but it’s not just American. I won’t say global, but it is pretty much, and is certainly in the US and in Europe, as happened with the Libor manipulation. If you or I stole a dollar candy bar we’d go to jail. But, if we work within the system that steals billions of dollars, we’ll be fine, and we’ll ultimately be rewarded. And no-one goes to jail.

No-one’s gone to jail in Greece…

And the [US] housing crash in 2008 was the same. Only a few people at a lower level get jailed. That’s why 99 Homes has been striking a chord wherever it’s been shown – Greece, Italy, Spain, France. The housing world is specific, like the worlds in Chop Shop and Man Push Cart, and audiences like discovering that, going into a world they don’t know. But there’s a universal, too – the sense that, for the 99 per cent, wherever you go, the system is rigged. People are feeling that everywhere.

And there are characters in 99 Homes that they can identify with.

Even Rick Carver, the character played by Michael Shannon. He is ‘the devil’, but you empathize with him. The system is the real villain. He’s a servant of it and smart enough to see that it’s rigged and how he can survive and profit from it. He’s hard to argue with – the system works with him.

And you sense anyone couldbecome like him.

Yes. If you said to someone: ‘Could you evict people from their homes?’, they’d say they’d never do that! But you see the film, and you realize you could end up in that situation. Society makes it that way. Real-estate brokers signed up to buy and sell properties. Evictions became their job. And so they’ve ended up carrying guns.

The film ends with a shot of a teenager – the coming generation. Can we, the people, change the world?

The world always changes. We will, I believe, cure cancer. But we have extreme wealth inequality. And the planet faces environmental disaster. Of course we can change the world, but things can go either way!

Malcolm Lewis is New Internationalist’s film reviewer. 99 Homes was reviewed in NI 486.And finally…