Ramin Bahrani might make fictional films, but his work draws so deeply from real life that they often feel like fact. That’s not an accident. Rather, it’s a reflection of the time and effort the Iranian-American director spends researching his projects.
His 2005 breakout indie film Man Push Cart came from two years spent researching New York’s pushcart vendors. Before shooting his latest feature, 99 Homes, Bahrani visited Florida to investigate the housing crisis that was at the epicentre of 2008’s global financial crisis, and found himself enveloped in a maelstrom of greed and inequality.
“The corruption in Florida was so mind-boggling, so immense,” says Bahrani, describing the time he spent with real estate brokers carrying guns to evictions, and in foreclosure courts nicknamed “rocket dockets” because of the speed in which they stripped families of their homes. At the centre of 99 Homes is one such displaced family. Andrew Garfield plays Dennis Nash, a construction worker who finds himself and his family – his mother (Laura Dern) and nine year-old son (Noah Lomax) – swiftly evicted from their home by broker Rick Carver (Michael Shannon).
Desperate to buy back his house, Nash strikes a Faustian bargain with Carver, working for the very man that evicted him. Nash’s complicity in the real estate business draws him into a world of corruption, with the film assuming the familiar arc of the classic gangster movie, sketching a world where innocent idealism is inevitably consumed by immorality.
99 Homes might draw from stylized Hollywood tradition, but its vision – of Florida’s sun-bleached suburban streets and claustrophobic courtrooms – retains the loose, realist cinematography of the director’s earlier work. “In the past, my films had all been socialist,’ says Bahrani, “very human stories with social themes, humanist themes. This ended up having that but in the thriller genre; someone coined it a ‘humanist thriller.’”
The specifics of the screenplay were drawn from Bahrani’s research in Florida, but, as he explained at the film’s Sydney Film Festival premiere, “real life is more than we can tolerate.” “The elderly man who gets evicted in the film – the real guy I saw getting evicted was that age, and was so confused. He had dementia. I actually shot it that way, and I cut it out, because I knew audiences would say ‘Oh he’s just milking it.’ In movies, you always have to subtract things to keep the audience focused.
“In the rocket dockets I saw a guy – he couldn’t speak English, and he brought a translator with him and the judge said ‘I have no time for translators.’ Rocket docket. Sixty seconds. Move on. If you don’t speak English, too bad for you. Literally 60 seconds later, the guy had lost. And couldn’t even understand what had happened. If I put that [in the film], everyone’s going to say ‘He has an agenda.’ I have no agenda. I’m just showing you what was happening.”
Whether or not Bahrani has a specific agenda, 99 Homes is unabashedly political in that way it presents “what was happening”. That’s clear from the title, a reference to the unequal income distribution of today’s society as famously leveraged by the Occupy Wall Street movement. A recent Oxfam report predicted that, by 2016, 1% of the world’s population will have more wealth than the remaining 99%.
Despite struggling to find work in the construction industry, Nash finds there’s plenty of money in destruction. He earns enough working with Carver to buy back his house – and then some – but his newfound wealth goes hand-in-hand with a descent into increasingly unethical behaviour. He strips out air conditioners and other appliances to scam money from the banks, or submits forged documents into evidence to force innocent families out of their homes.
“A lot of people are making money, but they’re not actually making things that are useful,” laments Bahrani. “That’s something anyone can understand, this 99 versus 1 per cent, where anywhere in the world we understand honest, hard work doesn’t seem to cut it anymore. And we all have a sense – either an emotional sense or actual studied knowledge – of how big business, banks and corrupt government policies have made the rich more entrenched in their position and everybody else keeps suffering.”
99 Homes is bracketed by such suffering. The film opens on the aftermath of a suicide and concludes with a violent confrontation when one of Nash’s neighbours, facing eviction, arms himself and refuses to leave his home. Yet the story is not absent glimmers of hope.
“I’m optimistic,” says Bahrani. “My films may not have extremely hopeful endings, per se, but I find the hope in one individual who’s prepared to do what he thinks is correct, even if it doesn’t change anything.
“Maybe someone in the audience sees this and thinks ‘Wait a second, maybe we should reassess what’s happening right now.’ Maybe we’re lucky and some big banker watches the film and thinks ‘My God, maybe I should rethink what I’m doing with my life. Why am I part of this system?’”
This interview was originally published in Edition 498 of The Big Issue.