Tuesday, April 7, 2009

DVD Review: The First Two Films by Ramin Bahrani

Man Push Cart (2006) *** ½
Directed By: Ramin Bahrani.

Written By: Ramin Bahrani.
Starring: Ahmad Razvi (Ahmad), Leticia Dolera (Noemi), Charles Daniel Sandoval (Mohammad), Ali Reza (Manish), Farooq 'Duke' Muhammad (Duke), Panicker Upendran (Noori), Arun Lal (Father-in-Law), Razia Mujahid (Mother-in-Law), Hassan Razvi (Ahmad's son).

Chop Shop (2008) *** ½
Directed By:
Ramin Bahrani.
Written By: Ramin Bahrani & Bahareh Azimi.
Starring: Alejandro Polanco (Ale), Isamar Gonzales (Isamar), Ahmad Razvi (Ahmad), Carlos Zapata (Carlos), Rob Sowulski (Rob).

I am a little embarrassed to admit that it has taken me so long to catch up with the first two films of Ramin Bahrani, an Iranian-American filmmaker who Roger Ebert has called “the next great American filmmaker”. In my defense, neither Man Push Cart or Chop Shop played in Toronto (at least, outside the film festival), and most video stores never even got the movies in. With the release of his latest film, Goodbye Solo, getting great reviews across the board, I figured I owed it to myself to go back and watch his first two films. Both are excellent, and I agree with the assessment that Bahrani is the real deal – a filmmaker with a unique vision and the skills to pull it off.

Man Push Cart (2006) tells the story of Ahmad, a Pakistani immigrant who wakes up early every morning and heads into Manhattan where he hauls his pushcart through the streets and sells coffee and bagels to the office workers in the area. When his day is done there, he wonders around on the street and tries to sell cheap porn DVDs to passersby on the street. He doesn’t make very much money – in fact he seems to only make enough working to allow himself to continue working.

We get only brief glimpses into Ahmad’s past. Apparently, he was a rock star in Pakistan. His wife died a little more than a year ago, and his in-laws will barely let him see his own son. How is wife died, and how he went from rock star in Pakistan to street vendor in Manhattan is wisely never explained – it doesn’t really matter, what matters in that Ahmad is in pain.

He makes two friends, Mohammad (Charles Daniel Sandoval), a wealthy Pakistani-American who works on Wall Street, who hires Ahmad to do some renovations on his upscale apartment. When he realizes who Ahmad is he says he’ll set him up with a friend of his who does bookings for entertainers – help Ahmad get back on stage again and making real money. The closest Ahmad comes is working as a doorman at a nightclub.

The other relationship is with Noemi (Leticia Dolera), an immigrant from Barcelona, who works at a newsstand. The two have a tender relationship, and share a sort of sad attraction to each other. Both are lonely, far away from home, and have little money. Mohammad also likes Noemi, and since Ahmad doesn’t seem to be making a move, and Mohammad can offer her things he can’t, perhaps she will allow herself to be taken in by him as well.

Man Push Cart appears to have be shot on the fly, with the camera sitting back impassively simply observing the action. Apparently, that is exactly what they did – many of the people in the movie had no idea they were being filmed, because Bahrani and his camera stay out of sight. The film simply observes Ahmad as it goes about his day-to-day life, his small tragedies (none sadder than the fate of a kitten he adopts) and his even smaller triumphs. We are reminded of the work of the Italian neo-realists, most notably Bicycle Thieves by Vittorio De Sica, which was also about a poor man whose lively hood depends on a vehicle of sorts. When something similar happens to Ahmad that happened to the hero of that movie, Ahmad first reaction is frantic, and then he slowly becomes resigned to his fate. His “friends” aren’t really his friends, and his life is going to be this, probably forever. Nothing changes.

I don’t think that the movie is really an attack on the American economy, where some people work constantly and cannot get ahead, whereas others, like Mohammad, don’t seem to do anything, but have a lot of money. I think the movie is about exactly what it seems to be about – Ahmad and his life, where every day he has to do the same damn thing.

Bahrani’s follow-up to Man Push Cart was Chop Shop (2008). Despite the fact I’m giving both films the same rating (I tell you, the rating system will be the death of me); I do think Chop Shop represents a significant step forward for Bahrani. While the influence of the neo-realists is still strong – especially since the movie concentrates of children, a favorite subject of the neo-realists – the film is a more visually alive and inventive than Man Push Cart. The camera is not simply passively observing the action, but instead is now painting fascinating images.

The movie is about Ale (Alejandro Polanco), a young Puerto Rican child of about 12 living in the Queens New York. Where his parents are, we have no idea. His only family is his sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), who is around 16. Neither attends school, and they share a room above the chop shop where Ale works running down spare parts, and essentially doing any job that is assigned to him. Apart from that, he goes out on the street and will sell just about anything. Like Ahmad in Man Push Cart, his constant working just leads to more work – but Ale has a dream. An uncle of friend has a catering truck for sale, for $4,500 that Ale wants to buy so he and his sister can go into business for themselves. Both he and Isamar work constantly to try and get enough money and things seem to be going okay, until Ale realizes just what it is that Isamar does for money.

If Ahmad had already had his soul crushed at the beginning of Man Push Cart, and the movie simply observed the aftermath, then Chop Shop is about how Ale’s soul is slowly crushed. He bounces from job to job, all of which miserable, some of which are illegal, but for the most part seems to be in good spirits. He has a dream, he has a goal, and he’s going to get there. But he is dealt one crushing blow after another, to the point where it’s almost painful to watch this kid forced to grow up so fast.

Bahrani’s camera probes the area in which Ale and his sister live. Right outside Shea Stadium, the blocks that Ale and Ismar inhabit seem more like something we’d see in the Third World than right inside New York City. The movie captures, in unflinching detail, the day to day lives of its characters. While in many movies, we would be invited to judge the characters and their morality, here it isn’t a question. No one else is going to help out these kids if they don’t do it themselves.

Taken together, the first two films by Rahmin Bahrani represent two immigrant stories the likes of which we don’t often see on screen. We are not sure how or why Ahmad and Ale have arrived in America, and why it seems like everyone has abandoned them, but are invited into their world for a short period of time. Both films are powerful, with complete, naturalistic performances, and are films that stay with you – and haunt you – for days after seeing them. They represent the beginning of what I think will probably be a great career.

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