Friday, March 31, 2006

ND/NF, Day 2

Man Push Cart

They are everywhere in NYC. After all, thousands of office workers need to get their caffeine fix in the morning and lunch at noon. You don't really notice them unless you're thirsty or hungry. Sometimes it's the sound of halal kebab sizzling on a hot plate grabbing your attention, or a brave soul cranking up the Lebanese pop music on his transistor radio. After 9/11, they've survived by plastering their carts with American patriotic stickers, downplaying their Arab or Muslim roots and patiently enduring abuse. Their silver carts seem to be permanently bolted to the street corners, especially in Midtown.

Few people know that when the donuts are sold-out in the afternoons, these carts are schlepped on foot to a storage space, where they resurface at the break of dawn to cater to the crowds. Man Push Cart reveals the world behind the carts and their owners. Most of them don't even own the cart, but rent them from cart-wholesalers, turning them into the sharecroppers of the 21st century, or recalling the 19th century feudal landlords in their native South Asia.

However, there is no political posturing in Man Push Cart, which is not a documentary, but fiction based on the real story of a push cart man. This impressive feature received its world premiere at last year's Venice film festival and won the FIPRESCI critic's award at the London film festival. It is by far the strongest New York film in this year's ND/NF edition, having sold for distribution to seven countries, including France and the U.S.

Man Push Cart observes the daily grind of Ahmad, a former Pakistani rock star who is mourning the death of his wife and the loss of his son, whom his resentful in-laws are shielding from him. Ahmad is convincingly played by Pakistani Brooklynite Ahmad Razvi , who once pushed a cart himself. One of his customers, a Pakistani yuppie, attempts to take him under his wing, partly out of a macho pleasure in watching a compatriot hustle to make a buck. When he recognizes Ahmad as a former singer, he gets an even bigger kick out of the menial jobs and false hope he throws Ahmad's way.

New York-based director and U.S.-born Ramin Bahrani spent three years in Iran making his feature-length thesis film Strangers and then lived in Paris before returning to the U.S. As a result, Man Push Cart reflects both the preference for minimalist vignettes of daily life as favoured by recent Iranian films and the French existentialism of Albert Camus. As a result, he guides the viewer through Ahmad's hard life without judgement or sentimentality.

Even though New York plays a major part and all of its makers are Newyorkers, the film's understated rhythm and its reliance on images rather than dialogue are a breath of fresh air in this verbose city that fears introspection and pessimism. "You will hopefully care for this [Pakistani] man whom in today's world we have been trained to hate and fear," proclaims Bahrani in his press kit. Although the film itself doesn't feel like it wields such a clearly political axe, you end up feeling you've gotten to know those anonymous Sisyphus's and their push carts a little better, which is typically the first step towards dispelling fear.

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