Film critics by nature like to discover new talent and then categorize it, so perhaps it's not surprising that A.O. Scott has dubbed Ramin Bahrani the primary practitioner of "Neo–Neo realism," or that Roger Ebert has anointed him as "the new great American director." Bahrani certainly isn't complaining.
"Roger Ebert — him saying that is incredibly humbling, especially when you look back at the people he's said that about. They are people I worship and adore and have seen their films 10,000 times. I've been watching Roger Ebert on television since I was a kid. I've been reading his criticism since I was a teenager. And I like a lot of what A.O. Scott wrote because it made me think about things. Which is good — it means he's doing his job as a film critic if he's making people think."
What did it make Bahrani think about? The nature of truth and reality and film, among other things. And also whether he really belonged to a movement that has sprung up in part from the recent economic crisis.
"Well, Chop Shop was made almost a year before the economic crisis, and Man Push Cart was made a couple of years before. I do wonder what the impact of Chop Shop would have been if it had had a wider release and had come out two months ago instead of a year ago. But though I think there is a relevance of the films to the economic crisis, it wasn't on my mind when I was making these films, because they were made beforehand. Nor am I sure that naturalism or realism has to happen in times of economic strife. Those same techniques could be used in other contexts. Of course, the people in [Matteo Garrone's] Gomorrah are not financially well off, but it's a different kind of film from mine, and it's still using on some level techniques of naturalism. However, I feel a kinship to films like Gomorrah because there is something truthful about them. I think they're aspiring to something honest and real, and they're trying to see something truthfully."
But another kind of categorization doesn't sit well with Bahrani, who was born and raised in Winston-Salem and whose parents are Iranian immigrants: ethnic stereotyping.
"Now that there are three of them, I like looking back on my films. For characters, they include a Pakistani-American, two Latino-Americans, and a Senegalese-American. I'm an Iranian-American or an American-Iranian or maybe just an American. And all these characters are the leads in films made in America by an American. And they're never commented on. I know eventually if I keep making films, Iranian-American in front of my name is going to go away and it's just going to be my name. We don't write 'Italian-American' for Scorsese anymore, though I know for his first films they did. So the Iranian part will get erased and people will get over it. What's important to me is not commenting on it."
Maybe a big step in that direction is his next film, which will address that most American of film genres.
"I want to make a Western," he says. "Set in 1852. It's taking longer than I thought to finish it. I should be done with the first version of the script in about two months, and my hope is to shoot it in 2010. I do have another New York street film I want to make, which has been in my mind since 2003. But I really want to push myself on this period film because I need to grow as a filmmaker."