Filmmaker brings small stories to the big screen

by Amy Kingsley

After the screening of Man Push Cart, the director strolled onstage to take questions from an audience comprised mostly of film students.

The first question disappointed director Ramin Bahrani.

“What kind of budget did you have?” the student asked.

“That is not the question you should be asking,” Bahrani said before concluding with the statement: “Money doesn’t make movies, people make movies.”

And people like Bahrani, a native of Winston-Salem, make movies like Man Push Cart, which is, in his own words, “about a very small man in a very big city.”

Man Push Cart concerns itself with the day-to-day life of Ahmad, a former Pakistani rock star turned Manhattan pushcart vendor. The film’s opening – Ahmad in the middle of the night stocking his cart and rolling it to a mid-city corner – sets a template for the story that unfurls in the next 90 minutes. Much of the action happens on the job. In a scene repeated over and over again, Bahrani stacks pastries, bagels and coffee cups, then unstacks them in exchange for dollars handed over by harried office workers.

Bahrani said the inspiration for his film came in part from Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. Bahrani repeatedly chooses shots that emphasize Ahmad’s fate as modern-day analog to the boulder-pushing Sisyphus. In the morning we watch Ahmad roll the cart downhill to his spot only to push it back up again at the end of every shift.

Like Sisyphus, Ahmad performs his tasks with a sense of resigned duty – until a fellow countryman recognizes the former singer. Mohammad, a successful businessman of the vaguest sort, invites Ahmad to his apartment an eventually into his inner circle.

Mohammad’s friends indulge in all the decadence of the early 21st century American dream: bottle service, houses upstate, evenings at the Met, karaoke. Ahmad retreats so much in their presence he appears almost to be shrinking.

Bahrani keeps Ahmad’s backstory intentionally vague, even to the point of frustration. We know the taciturn vendor has a young son from whom he is estranged, hinting at some grave sin in his past. Bits and pieces emerge during Ahmad’s tentative flirtation with Noemi, a willowy Spanish immigrant who runs a nearby magazine stand.

Bahrani said he left the gaps as a courtesy to his audience, and that he pieced the film together during editing out of the best parts of the film, not necessarily the ones most integral to the plot. What emerges is a naturalistic narrative cluttered in the same fashion as modern city life.

Ahmad is an unlikely hero, a character who conveys most of his emotions in the silences between words and whose confrontations, with one notable exception, rarely rise above an accusing gaze. But Ahmad’s humility and bald decency in harrowing circumstances practically beg for empathy.

Bahrani parried questions about budget for a while before he finally revealed that Man Push Cart was filmed in 30 days for $500,000. The director trained himself to use Final Cut Pro video-editing software, and spliced more than 50 hours of raw film into the finished product.

The quiet film found its way into several critics’ “best of” lists and earned Ahmad Razvi an Independent Spirit nomination for best actor. The nonprofessional is up against such Hollywood heavyweights as Forest Whitaker and Edward Norton.

Bahrani will be returning to New York City, where he is finishing his second feature film titled Chop Shop, after he finishes his stint as a judge for the Carolina Film and Video Festival.

The next time he returns to Winston-Salem, he told the audience, it will be to shoot a film. He is already working on the script. You can ask him about that, but please, don’t ask him about the budget.

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