Monday, January 23, 2017

Ramin Bahrani | Man Push Cart

an american nightmare
by Douglas Messerli

Ramin Bahrani (writer and director) Man Push Cart / 2005

After being highly impressed with Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes, I determined to watch some of his earlier films, beginning with the simply titled Man Push Cart of 2005. The film itself, simple and straightforward as its title, shows a young Pakistani man Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) dragging his metal cart through the pre-dawn streets and setting up to serve bagels, muffins, tea, and coffee near Lexington Avenue each morning. 
       Not much else happens: he meets an attractive Spanish-born magazine and cigarette seller at a nearby kiosk, Noemi (Leticia Dolera), as well as a wealthy Pakistani businessman,  Mohammad (Charles Daniel Sandoval), who finally recognizes Ahmad as a former rock-singer from Lahore and, rather condescending, hires him, in Ahmad’s off hours, to help with the restoration of his apartment. 
      We’re never told what has brought this hard-working immigrant to the US, although we do discover that his wife has died and that his son is living with the in-laws, who clearly blame him for his wife’s death and attempt to keep him from seeing the child. For a while he works nights in a club, taking tickets, and inviting Noemi to events, although she appears to spend more time there with Mohammad than Ahmad; eventually Noemi, Ahmad’s only woman friend other than his customers, returns to Barcelona. And Mohammad ultimately does loan him $500 for a partial payment for his cart. 

Nothing comes, however, of Mohammad’s promise to introduce the “Bono of Lahore” to friends in the music business, and like Sisyphus (Bahrani has said that his film was influenced by Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus), Ahmad must return each morning to push and pull his cart into place. A quick run to say goodbye to Noemi ends with his cart being stolen, and the loss not only of his meager income, but of the one thing that seems to have any purpose in his life.
      Bahrani seems to be making no American economic parable here, but simply lets his camera recount the obvious, an immigrant desperately trying to make a new life in a foreign country. Like millions of doctors, teachers, engineers, and successful people in their own country before him, Ahmad has had to give up his previous life to begin again as a daily laborer in order to survive and find a way to care for what is left of his family.


     The fact that Ahmad clearly does not know how to care for himself, or even a poor kitten he adopts—he feeds it only milk and doesn’t even provide it with a litter box before it dies—is almost beside the point. Clearly he will continue his daily struggle until he succeeds or himself dies. As some critics have noted, after seeing this eloquently made film, you cannot ever stop by a magazine kiosk, buy a cup of coffee or a hot dog, or take a taxi in Manhattan without seeing the man or woman running them in a different way, perhaps even asking for their full names.
      Much like his fellow Iranian director, Jafar Panahi, Bahrani (who teaches film directing at Columbia University’s Graduate Film Program) demonstrates that significant films can be made, if there is an imaginative force behind them, on a shoestring budget and the most modest of film techniques. If nothing else, Bahrani has shown himself as a filmmaker to be admired and watched.  

Los Angeles, January 23, 2017

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