Man Push Cart was the first of two movies that I saw on Thursday that I didn't much like when I was watching it but liked better after hearing the discussion afterwards.
The writer and director is Ramin Bahrani, a young man actually born in North Carolina, but with Iranian-American parents, and who spent a significant amount of time living in Iran. Bahrani was jailed in Iran for a week after participating in a candle light vigil following the 9/11 attacks on suspicion of being a spy for the United States. The star is Ahmad Razvi, who was born in the part of Kashmir claimed by Pakistan, but came to the United States as a baby, and actually worked as a pushcart vendor in New York City about 10 years before the film was made.
The film has a slight plot line, which does not bother me; sometimes the best films are more about situations and human nature than plot. Ebert described it as a movie about human nature placed in a difficult position. I agree with Ebert that some of the best movies are not plot or genre driven but about how people make it through the day. But I didn't think this movie was a particularly good example of the situational movie, although I certainly wouldn't call it a "bad" movie.
Ahmad the push cart vendor gets up at 2:30 every morning to pull his push cart to his spot on a New York City street where he sells coffee, tea, donuts and bagels. His in-laws have his 7-year-old son whom they rarely allow Ahmad to visit because they blame him for the death of their daughter, although the movie never tells us how or why she died. Ahmad does everything he can to earn money, including selling bootleg porn movies and carpentry and painting for a rich Pakistani expatriate whom he meets. He finally gets his push cart paid off, only to have it stolen a few days later.
The name of the movie comes not only from the obvious fact that Ahmad and the cart spend a great deal of time pushing each other around, but also the old myth of Sisyphus having been condemned to pushing the rock up the mountain, only to have it fall back down.
I did not like how dark the movie was. Some scenes were just plain hard to see. Sometimes it was hard to track what was happening because not only were the scenes hard to see, the transitions were hard to follow, so that the time and place of a particular scene was not easy to figure out.
My view of the movie softened, however, during the panel discussion that Ebert had with Bahrani and Razvi. Bahrani was so passionate about movies in general and this one in particular, that it was easy to get caught up in his enthusiasm. He thought of making the movie after Bush bombed Afghanistan and he remembered that most of the push cart vendors he knew in New York City were from Afghanistan. He wanted to make a movie that was not hyper-political or an issues movie because those kinds of movies have a short shelf life, but he wanted to make the audience care about people who are part of the background of urban life. He had met Razvi, who, at the time, was running a Pakistani restaurant and had never acted before this movie was made.
Some of the things I did not like about the movie, Bahrani told us were done deliberately to achieve the effect he wanted. Much of the movie, which was shot in 30 days on hardly any budget at all, was shot in the darkness because that is when Ahmad worked. Much of the filming was done with a long camera lens from across the street to compress the traffic and to put Ahmad in a tight frame. The director deliberately had Ahmad behind objects with only a portion of his face or body showing to give the feeling that he is trapped by his circumstances. Bahrani tried to take everything out of the story that he could so that the audience would use its own imagination to fill in the blanks. He said that he would be flattered to find out that audience members thought about the movie three days afterwards.
I was mentally prepared to give the movie two stars while I was watching it, but the discussion won me over and my final score is four stars.