Friday, April 28, 2006

The Men Who Pushed The Cart

Day 2 of Ebertfest started with a movie I already knew I dug: Man Push Cart, by first-time director (and writer and producer and editor) Ramin Bahrani and starring first-time actor Ahmad Razvi. It's a movie that I hope won't remain overlooked forever, but I'm glad that Ebert selected it now so that he could sit down with the filmmakers and pull out of them the story of how truly indie (not mainstream indie) filmmakers manage to get the job done. The answer is, to quote Spike Lee, by any means necessary.

But the movie itself deserves a discussion. Often, I think, when a great movie is made under really extenuating circumstances, the means tends to obliterate the ends. That's particularly a shame because this one really sheds insight into the immigrant experience and hence an aspect of the human condition overall with an eye as lovely as its sensitivity.

Essentially, Man Push Cart is about one of the many living ghosts who populate major US cities, in this case Nueva York. There are some people who are ghosts because they are so completely defined by their past that they scarcely interact with the many people in their immediate surroundings; there are people who are ghosts because they are rendered invisible by those around them, such as the many immigrants who keep NYC running without much recognition. And then there is Ahmad (played by Ahmad), who is a ghost twice over.

A rockstar in his native Pakistan, he works as one of the many pushcart vendors that keep caffeine and sugar buzzing through New Yorkers' bloodstreams. A hard job for anyone, especially post-9/11, but Ahmad already carries a sisyphian burden in addition to the pushcart he soliders every day: His wife died a year before and his young son is now living with his in-laws. Ahmad is nothing if not terrifically, terrifically sad.

The film is about the obstacles he encounters as he attempts to pull himself into the present, and its greatest achievement is the degree to which its audience is trusted. It is shadowy rather than Hollywood-overlit. It is often wordless but not at all soundless. Horns honking and even clicking traffic lights loom large, the way that they always do during periods of intense loneliness. And Man Push Cart really doesn't toss up a ton of hope even at the film's end. Bad things happen, it suggests. And they always will. What we can control — all we can control — is how we respond to them.

Here's what's funny: Bahrani is as outgoing and (pleasantly) didactic and earnest as his film is subtle and restrained. In the post-film discussion, he revealed himself as a poetry fan, a film geek of the high degree, and as someone bristling with a genuine passion to CONVEY TRUTH. Who even bandies about such words these days except for scientologists in an era of increasingly debilitating moral relativism? And in real life Ahmad is a former restauranteur who is now pursuing a full-time career in acting as well as working as an activist since 9/11 (his Pakistani neighborhood in Brooklyn was pretty much in siege by 9/12). So these are people powered by the conviction that your actions, including your art, really matter, and not just for your own benefit.

When I met them at Sundance, I could already tell that they were the real deal as people. But I was nervous: Would their film reek of overearnestness as a result, would its aesthetics be the equivalent of the labor activist's Birkenstocks? Uh, no.

After the film, Ebert pointed out how effectively it carried its political message, and he's right. Most projects these days are either abjectly apolitical or pretty much shove their agenda down audiences' throats so that even the choir is gagging. Ahmad and Razvi sidestepped that Moore-ian pitfall through their sparse use of dialogue and the universality of Ahmad's plight: he'd be brokenhearted wherever he was after losing his wife, and it's a tragedy that can befall anyone. The universiality inclines audiences to be on his side, so that they're sympathetic when he encounters his other struggles as well. Being a foreigner in an intensely hostile environment exacerbates his misery for sure, and that comes across. No punches are pulled but this is first and foremost a piece of art, well hewn and sensitively rendered, that conveys all the colors of the human condition (especially blue). And the political climate of these days is a big piece of that puzzle.


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