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This Different American Life

By FilmNerd April 10, 2009


Editor's Note: On April 29, superstar film director Ramin Bahrani will attend a one-night-only screening of  his new film, Goodbye Solo, at Northwest Film Forum. Bahrani will also be teaching a class at NWFF on April 28. FilmNerd looks back at Bahrani's 2005 breakout film, Man Push Cart.  


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Man Push Cart (Ramin Bahrani, USA/Iran, 2005) is an exposition of an invisible world: The society that bubbles under the surface of coffee carts and newsstands scattered throughout Manhattan. 


Ahmad (played by then-lay actor Ahmad Razvi) is a Pakistani immigrant, widowed for a year, whose hostile in-laws won’t let him see his young son. Every day, he gets up at 2am to negotiate the taxicab, garbage truck, and bus strewn streets of Manhattan so he can sell coffee, donuts and bagels to the white collars of Wall Street. He is so dogged by melancholy and mishaps that he can't seem to get a leg up—even when people try to help him.


The film largely takes place in the dark. The first scene, for example, is shot in the black setting of pre-dawn, and the glimpses we do catch are unfamiliar. A man goes into a murky industrial garage, pulling cardboard boxes from stacks and putting them into a large stainless steel container twice his height. He then drags the mystery container alongside traffic in the early morning. It's only when daylight momentarily touches the scene, and customers line up at the counter, that Bahrani clues us in to Ahmed's gig. But the film quickly slips back into the shadows.  



When Ahmad closes up shop and returns his cart to the dim garage, it's dusk again.  He walks the streets, selling bootleg pornos to supplement his coffee cart income, forced, like so many immigrants, to straddle the formal and informal sectors to make ends meet. And by the time he takes the subway away from the City at the end of the night, we can barely make out the lights of Manhattan's skyscrapers and bridges through the train's window. The shot causes some confusion as to where he's going—and what looks like a laborious trip up some stairs turns out to be a climb up scaffolding to peer through the window of his in-laws' apartment. His former family is holding a mourning ceremony for Ahmed's dead wife.  Once he's made it home, it's 2am and time to leave for work again.  

Just as darkness permeates this film, perpetual labor permeates Ahmad's personal life, to the point that he doesn't have one. At least not one that's unrelated to his daily labor. He befriends a Spanish girl (Leticia Dolera) at a nearby newsstand; buying cigarettes from her to maintain some sort of relationship. He also befriends—through work—a wealthy businessman from his own hometown named Mohammed (Charles Daniel Sandovar), who hires Ahmad to do contracting work on his swanky Manhattan condo. Mohammed's skeezy nightclub-owner friend also extends a hand to Ahmad, who had been a successful singer in Pakistan. He hires Ahmad to work selling nightclub tickets into the wee hours. 


Watching this 21st-century Sisyphus wrestle his cart through the streets to do work for which he is underpaid but overqualified,  brings the shadow world of menial labor to light. Shot at times when most of the world is asleep, and centered on actions that most of us don’t have to think about, Man Push Cart is a meditation on a different American life. It’s about not getting a break, but not needing one to keep going day after day.


Unfortunately, Man Push Cart isn't playing in town, but you can rent it at Scarecrow. Wednesday is two-for-one day!   

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