An impressive third act

by Keith Barber

Three journalists and two staffers from the 11th annual RiverRun International Film Festival followed closely behind Ramin Bahrani as he walked across a hot asphalt parking lot connecting the ACE Theatre to an office building on the campus of the UNC School of the Arts campus on April 25. Moments before, Bahrani, a Winston-Salem native, introduced his third feature film, Goodbye Solo, to a packed house at the school’s main theater. Dozens of hopeful viewers still milled about inside the theater lobby during Bahrani’s introduction, hoping against hope that a coveted seat would open up and they could slip inside the darkened theater, take a seat and experience the latest work of one of independent cinema’s most heralded young directors. But alas, not an empty seat was to be found.

The three journalists huddled closely around a desk inside a nameless office building, recording devices rolling, as Bahrani began to speak. It was evident that at age 34, with three feature films under his belt, the softspoken Bahrani has achieved a level of success and critical acclaim that gives added weight to his words. A quiet man, Bahrani expressed a deep sense of gratitude for the positive reviews Goodbye Solo has received from film critics and audiences since its world premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival. Solo received the FIPRESCI International Film Critics prize at Venice. And the American reception of the film, which was shot in Winston-Salem in 2007, has surpassed Bahrani’s expectations.

“I’m grateful people are responding to the film and what the film’s about which is about a friendship, a selfless friendship. For people in this time period to respond to that is great,” Bahrani said. “I think it’s really a reflection of how this society has changed so much in the last year having exited the last eight years of politics and entered into a different time. People are coming together in a different way and I’m grateful for that, too.” Solo, like Bahrani’s previous features Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, tells a story other filmmakers seem to totally ignore. The story of an unexpected friendship between a Senegalese taxi driver and an elderly Southern man, Solo continues the Bahrani tradition of exploring the mysteries of human connections. Soul’mayne or “Solo,” played by newcomer Soul’mayne Sy Savan’, and William, played by Hollywood veteran actor Red West, forge a bond after William hires Solo to drive him from Winston-Salem to Blowing Rock at a future date. After Solo realizes William plans on committing suicide by leaping off the mountain, he sets about to change his friend’s mind. A chance meeting between Bahrani and a Senegalese taxi driver in Winston-Salem provided the genesis for Solo. Bahrani said he spent six months taking cab rides with the immigrant cabbie, and during that time, he would regularly pass by an assisted living facility.

RaminBahrani, a Winston-Salem native, received the 2009 Emerging MasterAward during the 11th annual RiverRun International Film Festival aftera screening of his latest film Goodbye Solo on April 25. Solo won theprestigious FIPRESCI International Film Critics award at the VeniceFilm Festival last year. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

“There was anelderly man standing by the side of the road. I began honking andwaving at him and he began to smile and wave back, which at first mademe quite happy and then it saddened me thinking about his role insociety — someone of that age,” Bahrani said. Those experiences laidthe foundation for Goodbye Solo, a film that also evolved out of discussions between Bahrani and longtime collaborator Michael Simmons. “Iwanted a film I could respect and my collaborator could respect, thatpeople who love movies could respect — a film my mom would enjoy orthat my brother and his girlfriend here in Winston would enjoy,”Bahrani said. “It appears it’s happening.” Respect and appreciation in the form of critical acclaim has been highlighted by positive reviews from New York Times film critic AO Scott and Roger Ebert among others. Bahrani said the attention Solo isreceiving is “flattering,” but his goal as a filmmaker is not toachieve fame or critical success. Succes for Bahrani is merely a meansto continue telling the stories he wants to tell. “I can’t make moviesthat resemble most of the films we see out there about white, yuppie,beautiful looking people who don’t have a care in the world,” he said.“I find that those films are a rejection of me. Why should I clarify orqualify myself based on a Hollywood film? I wonder why Hollywood ismaking films against me. I think it’s a big problem.” Bahrani,the son of Iranian parents, clearly stated that his stories about hisfilms, which include characters living on the margins of society, donot represent a repudiation of Hollywood. They are simply the storieshe’s most interested in telling. “It’s very hard to make afilm — this is no mystery,” he said. “It’s incredibly hard to make afilm so if you’re not interested in it, it’s going to be hard to finishit. Believe me, it’s very easy to quit in the middle of a film.”

Bahrani said he developed his directing style by studying the techniques of filmmakers he admires. Solo representsthe first time Bahrani has hired a professional actor — Red West — forone of the parts in his movie. Bahrani also likes to give his actorsonly the pages of the script that include their part to get a moreorganic performance. The young director also eschews trying tocommunicate a moral message to his audience. Chop Shop featureda 12-year-old Latino street orphan as the main character, who madechoices audiences might have found appalling. It is thosenon-traditional choices Bahrani makes in his storytelling that have sethim apart from many of his fellow directors. Bahrani said the 12-year-old protagonist of Chop Shop simplydoes what he believes is necessary to survive. “[He’s] prepared to doanything to be with his sister who he loves more than anything in theworld. By the end of the film, he’s telling his sister to go sellherself for money, to prostitute herself. You’re going to judge him.‘That’s a morally wrong action, that’s not right.’ I challenge you towatch the film and tell me you don’t understand why he’s done it andyou don’t love him more than anything in the world,” Bahrani said.Ultimately, the themes of Bahrani’s three films transcend morality, hesaid. “I’m interested in actions of one human being to another — thisis of paramount importance to me and to all my films,” he said. “Howdoes one human being treat another human being. How does one humanbeing understand himself in this world, and how does a human beingbehave in this world, which we cannot comprehend. This is important tome, but the moralities of it, I leave that up to someone else.” Momentsafter Bahrani’s remarks, he returned to the sold-out theater for amoderated discussion with screenwriter Angus MacLachlan beforereceiving the 2009 Emerging Master Award. The presentation marked theculmination of a triumphant return home for the enormously talenteddirector who’s making an indelible mark on the independent film scene.