"One of the marks of civilization is to be able to somehow step outside your own mind and your own experiences and understand what it is like to be a person of another race, another age, another gender, another nationality. To have different physical capabilities, to have different beliefs, and when I go to the movies, I have an out of body experience. If the movie is working to me, to some degree I am that person on the screen. I forget my social security number; I don’t know where I parked the car. I am having vicariously an experience that happens to someone else, and that makes me a better person, or it can make me a better person. I sincerely believe that to see good films, and to see important films is one of the most profound and civil experiences that we can have as people."
Each and every screening at Ebertfest started out with a short video featuring Roger Ebert’s words being spoken over a montage of this year’s films of the festival. In "Goodbye Solo," the audience slipped into the shoes of a Senegalese immigrant working as a taxi driver in Winston Salem, North Carolina, the shoe laces tightly tied by an independent filmmaker at the top of his game, Ramin Bahrani.
The plot of the film is very simple and straightforward. In fact, as David Bordwell puts it, the "compressed plot" of the entire film is laid out for the viewer in a two-minute opening scene. We see an old man in Solo’s taxi. The old man offers him a deal. For a thousand dollars, he wants the driver to take him to the top of Blowing Rock. Solo seems like a happy-go-lucky guy, while the old man is both grouchy and grumpy. When Solo asks curiously asks about his return trip, William provides him with no answer. "You’re not gonna jump are you?" Still, he gets no answer. The smile slowly fades away, and both Solo and the viewer realize the nature of William’s destination; it is most certainly intended to be a one-way trip.
Now, the plot may remind you of another film directed by another Iranian filmmaker, "Taste of Cherry." Surely, in one of the questions at the Q&A, the director was asked if he knew about the film whilst making "Goodbye Solo." To which he replied, "We knew ‘Taste of Cherry’ and we thought because it would be referenced what could we do to quickly get away from it? In that film the main character wants to kill himself, so we flipped ours quickly to the main character being the one who wants to stop it from happening."
Besides the synopsis, the two films couldn’t be any more different. As Ramin put it, his film is about "accepting something you know is coming." Ramin gave death as an example, and referred to the loss of Roger Ebert and how he struggled to accept it, but ultimately had to because it is part of life, and we appreciate life because death is right around the corner. They both complete one another and must co-exist. In a way, the screening of "Goodbye Solo" reflected what every member of Ebertfest felt about attending Ebertfest without Roger Ebert.
During the first two days, I couldn’t help but repeatedly overhear people say, "it just isn’t the same without Roger," and indeed it isn’t. However, as the festival progressed, the complaint almost faded away into oblivion. You see as the audience got more and more immersed into all these carefully selected film favorites, we all learned to accept that he was gone, and rather than mourn his absence, the audience chose to celebrate his life through the movies. I like to think that the screening of "Goodbye Solo" is when this subtle transition came full circle.
The audience also learned that the film was dedicated to another friend of Ramin, who too was a victim of cancer. Ramin stressed that the film would never had gotten made if it weren’t for his friend. He had almost given up on making it after failing to cast the lead actor, when one day his friend knocked on his door and told him to go casting. Her cheerful energetic spirit made him feel ashamed that he almost so easily gave up on making the film, and from that moment on, Ramin was dedicated to finish what he started.
Nevertheless, the cast he did end up with could not be any more interesting. Red West, who plays William was Elvis Presley’s best friend; he was also a stunt man in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and even played chess with the duke himself, John Wayne. He appeared in several films including two Oliver Stone movies. Souleymane Sy Savane is impossible to dislike as the lead character, Solo. His performance commands the screen so naturally; we can’t help but fall in love with his jolly spirit. But what is most interesting about this little film and perhaps the most praised aspect post screening was the chemistry between the old introverted suicidal man and the young extroverted taxi driver.
So far, Ramin has had four films screened at Ebertfest: "Man Push Cart," "Chop Shop," "Goodbye Solo" and the short film "Plastic Bag." His next film, "99 Homes" stars Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon. It is slated to come out in the fall. Perhaps, it too will screen at Ebertfest sometime in the future. Afterall, in a visit to the hospital, Ramin told Roger about the synopsis of "99 Homes," to which Roger responded with a simple yet recognizable gesture, the thumbs up.