Ramin Bahrani's parents were apprehensive about their son's desire to be a filmmaker. "Initially they were concerned that I meant Hollywood—that lifestyle of sex, violence and drugs," says the 30-year-old North Carolina native.
But Bahrani's parents, who'd settled in Winston-Salem after leaving Iran in 1968, long ago came to understand that their son was interested in serious movies, often aboutoutsider cultures at the margins of American society. Now they've had a chance to witness their son's graceful first bow on the national independent film stage with his second feature film, Man Push Cart.
The product of two years of research and writing by Bahrani, Man Push Cart dramatizes the plight of a pushcart vendor in New York City who was once a star pop singer in Pakistan. Although the film is fictitious, the details are painstakingly researched, right down to the precise place where vendors park their burning cigarettes when they have to serve a customer.
Getting to Sundance Film Festival is the classic badge of indie film achievement, but it doesn't necessarily address the secondary concerns raised by the senior Bahranis. "They wanted to know, 'How you going to pay your bills?' And that, of course, is a very legitimate question," said Bahrani, a tall, bespectacled man who combines austere work habits with loquacious affability.
Just making it to Sundance required years of extraordinary commitment and sacrifice. In late December I visited Bahrani in Winston-Salem, where he was spending the holidays with his family. Our initial late-night interview was a study in contrasts between the myth of movie glamour and the realities of the indie film business.
On one hand, Bahrani had recently completed an autumn tour of top European and African festivals, including Venice, Thessaloniki (where his lead actor Ahmad Razvi copped the acting award), Mannheim, London and Marrakech (where he met with Martin Scorsese and served as English translator for one of his idols, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami).
On the other hand, the bright lights of foreign film festivals seemed far, far away as we spoke in the parking lot of a deserted strip mall, having been chased away from a Borders bookstore at closing time by a surly, hose-wielding janitor. Bahrani confessed that as much as he was visiting his folks, he was also, practically speaking, living with them for a couple of weeks. A decade of dedication to his cinematic obsessions had yet to yield a reliable living, and this globetrotting filmmaker had been officially homeless since July.
Although his film had done well abroad, the upcoming Sundance festival would be the film's first appearance before the all-important audience of North American filmgoers and distributors. The festival would help determine the fate of Bahrani's film and it held the potential to affect Bahrani's life. It was three weeks away.
For young filmmakers with short résumés like Ramin Bahrani, Sundance presents an opportunity to show one's wares before 50,000 movie fans, 3,000 members of the press, and every distributor of low budget films in the country. Members of the media get first peeks at next year's crop of movies, and the more influential of us—like Roger Ebert, the New York Times' A.O. Scott or the trendspotters of the Village Voice—can champion an upstart film and make all the difference in the world.
Earlier in the day, Bahrani had called me with the news that the British film journal Screen International had named him one of the world's most exciting young directors. Later, when he sat down with me in an alcove of the Park City Marriott, he had some good news about Man Push Cart: "I just sold the theatrical rights to Benelux." Coming into the festival, Bahrani had sold theatrical rights in France and Greece, and his sales agent in Europe was working one country after another. After a pause, Bahrani admitted that he'd just learned that the pharmaceutical-sounding Benelux was shorthand for Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg.
Although he still lacks an American buyer for Man Push Cart, Bahrani is beginning to reap the harvest of his cinematic labors. Not only will this upstart filmmaker receive his biggest exposure to U.S. audiences yet, but a couple of other projects are beginning to bear financial fruit. He was recently awarded funding from Independent Television Service (ITVS) to create a drama set in the rough and tumble world of Winston-Salem's Senegalese taxi drivers, and he's expecting a check soon. "It's the first time that I've ever been paid to do this, after 10 years," he said. He has received grants and fellowships, however, including a two-month stint at the Headlands writers' retreat north of San Francisco, courtesy of the North Carolina Arts Council. There he worked on the script for Man Push Cart.
Spending time with Bahrani is an object lesson in the extraordinary amount of focused energy that is required to succeed in the world of independent film and at a festival like Sundance. "I don't see how you can survive if you don't have a clear vision," he said. This is partly why he only intermittently keeps up with what other indie filmmakers his age and background are doing, preferring to watch the work of classic directors like Robert Flaherty, John Cassavetes and Italian neo-realists like De Sica, Visconti and Rossellini. There are also unmistakeable traces of Iranian filmmaking techniques like those of Abbas Kiarostami.
In a way, Man Push Cart seems out of place at this festival, which is filled with works that hew to a style of filmmaking that is notoriously associated with Sundance—a naturalistic focus on working-class characters in rustic locations looking to overcome obstacles presented by their race, class or sexual orientation. Bahrani's film eschews this style, however, being shot at a greater emotional and aesthetic distance and shunning the easy routes to its audience's heartstrings. It is a deliberate, studied and very moving film about immigrant loneliness—made all the more compelling because of its lack of melodramatic contrivance.
Going into Sundance, Bahrani was concerned about the film's placement in the festival. Man Push Cart wasn't scheduled to premiere until Thursday, the seventh day of the 10-day fest, and the press screening wouldn't happen until Friday morning, by which time many influential tastemakers would have already left town, either to return home or to push on toward Rotterdam and Berlin, the next two stops on the festival circuit.
Man Push Cart fought for attention amid 120 films in venues all around town. With so many movies in search of audiences, one couldn't walk two feet in Park City without encountering posters exhorting festival-goers to see this or that exciting new film. However, there were no such posters for Man Push Cart because Bahrani had to do the festival on the cheap. His film had already played festivals abroad, and the independent distributors were aware of his work, so he decided to not spend money he didn't have on a publicist. Instead, Bahrani acted as his own flack.
The big day arrived for Bahrani and his crew. I met Bahrani, lead actor Ahmad Razvi, cinematographer Michael Simmonds and several others at the Prospector Square Theater, and together we waited in the green room. Bahrani was full of energy: He sat down, he stood up, he checked his messages, he raced in and out of the room. Later, however, Bahrani said that whatever anxiety he felt here was nothing compared to his Venice premiere, where he grimly took a position in the back of the theater in order to count the number of walkouts. (There were 10 early exits out of that crowd of a thousand, which is as good as none in the hurly-burly of an important film festival.)
Simmonds, who has the personality of the hearty surf dude he is, tried to read a newspaper. This was his first Sundance film, and I asked if he was nervous. "No, but I wish I was more intoxicated," he replied before dashing to the bathroom.
It was 5:15 p.m. Fifteen minutes to go.
The most relaxed person in the room seemed to be Vinay Jayaram, one of Bahrani's producers. After graduating from Duke University in 1996 with a bachelor's degree in German literature, Jayaram went to work for a New York investment bank where he met Bahrani through a co-worker. "Ramin is always driven by intellectual curiosity. He's driven to learn about new facets of life that he didn't know about," Jayaram said.
At 5:30 p.m., the theater, which holds 350 people, was gratifyingly full, despite Bahrani's lack of PR resources. After a generous introduction by festival director Gilmore, Bahrani took the stage. "I don't want to say too much at this point," he began, "but there are three small things I'd like to mention." Bahrani first mentioned what he called "George Bush's bombing" of Afghanistan, an event that, in fact, got him thinking about Afghans and Pakistanis living in New York. He then cited two literary works, Camus' essay "The Myth of Sisyphus," where Sisyphus is recast as an absurdist hero, pushing the rock up the hill over and over as a justification for his existence. Bahrani also invoked the world's best-selling poet, the 13th-century Persian Sufi writer Rumi.
Finally, it was time for Man Push Cart. Filmed in the literal and figurative shadows of New York in high definition video, the movie is a grave, documentary-influenced look at the daily struggle for survival in the ultimate city of immigrants. The opening scenes are devoted to the quotidian details of operating one of those ubiquitous stands. The day begins at 2 a.m. as we see Ahmad (Razvi) arrive at the warehouse, fill his propane tank and load up on doughnuts and coffee. Then comes the long, pre-dawn toil of pushing (or, mostly, pulling) the cart down Manhattan's hilly avenues to assume a position in time for the morning commuters—a sequence that is hauntingly photographed with long lenses by Simmonds.
While Bahrani conveys a feeling of urban loneliness similar to what Scorsese produced in Taxi Driver, it's the sort of thing that only a filmmaker with the perspective of a foreigner would get right. Man Push Cart isn't a film that grabs audiences by the lapels like a Scorsese film—or recent Sundance hits like Hustle and Flow or Napoleon Dynamite. Instead, it's a reflective, carefully observed film with off-kilter editing choices that reinforce the outsider's point of view. Man Push Cart ends up being far more reminiscent of Middle Eastern cinema—and decades-old Western influences—than any other film recently produced in America.
The crowd sat raptly through the film as Ahmad encounters difficulties with employers and the family of his deceased wife. But rather than being extensively plotted, the film contains vignettes of Ahmad adopting a stray kitten, selling bootlegged DVDs and entering into a tenuous, confused relationship with another immigrant, a Spanish newsstand vendor.
It's a delicately daring film, and when the lights came up, it was clear that the audience had remained with it. The applause was loud and appreciative as Bahrani and his entourage took the stage, and most people stayed for the Q&A—always a good sign. One woman, a New Yorker, commented that she'd never seen the city assume such a scary role, almost as a character in its own right. On the subject of Rumi's influence, Bahrani cited the verse which led him to his film's title.
I am the polo stick, you are the ball.
Whereever I hit you, you must go,
Wherever you go, I must follow.
Later that night, I attended a post-premiere celebration at the condo being shared by the Man Push Cart gang, located on a steep hill at the top of Main Street. I got there at midnight as it started to snow. Things were hopping inside where an assortment of friends, hip-hop entrepreneurs and fellow filmmakers struggled toward intoxication on Utah's notorious low-alcohol beer.
Bahrani showed me pictures from his scouting trips for his next two projects, both of which will also explore outsider cultures: Untitled Senegalese Taxi Driver Film, to be shot in Winston Salem,and Chop Shop, a tale of auto salvage yard workers in the shadow of Shea Stadium in Queens.
I surveyed the party and the remains of the burrito fixings and asked Bahrani who threw it—meaning, Who paid for it? I was still imagining some great checkbook in the sky that pays for films and their promotion. He looked at me for a moment and said, "I did. I bought the food and cooked it. Forty dollars." He points to the refrigerator. "The beer—I didn't buy that. It was left by the previous occupant."
By the time the awards ceremony rolled around on Saturday, I was back in North Carolina, wiser by about 25 films. Being in the Frontier section of the program, Man Push Cart wasn't eligible for any awards, but Bahrani's Sundance excursion was a success nonetheless. On Friday, he closed a distribution deal with Films Philos, a small distributor that has some excellent titles in its portfolio, including two sleeper art house hits from a few years ago, The Girl from Paris and In July.
Despite the relative obscurity of his film's placement in the Sundance schedule, Man Push Cart received the endorsement of two important film critics: In an article published at festival's end, Roger Ebert gave the thumbs up, singling out Bahrani's film for special mention in his column and writing that "with very little money but a lot of effort, a director can push a movie all the way uphill to Sundance. ... The whole experience contains the Sundance idea: Anyone can make a movie, and if it is good enough Sundance can help it find an audience." (Ebert didn't mention that he received several e-mails from Bahrani that urged him to check it out.)
Village Voice critic Dennis Lim cited Man Push Cart as one of the festival's three most important dramas, along with Old Joy and In Between Days, calling Bahrani's film "a visually eloquent summation of the stoic hero's existential plight." Lim also lamented the fact that of these three fine films, only one—Man Push Cart—has located a distributor.
Short of winning awards, Bahrani's Sundance excursion had been as successful as could be reasonably expected. Just getting in was one thing: the 120 features represented about 4 percent of the 3,148 that were submitted. The odds don't get better at the summit. Earlier in the week, Bahrani sat on a panel about Middle Eastern filmmaking and a fellow panelist noted that two-thirds of Sundance films fail to get distribution.
"The funnel keeps getting smaller and smaller," Bahrani reflected after the festival. "It's incredibly tough to get in, and it's even harder to get a distributor. We feel incredibly lucky."
Even with the distributor on his side, Bahrani hasn't landed the ticket to the end of his toils. He figures that his Man Push Cart investors will see a full return "and then some" by 2008. Until his investors get paid, Bahrani said he would eschew any financial participation on his part.
However modest the financial rewards may turn out to be for Man Push Cart, the success of the enterprise gives him the means to push on with the next project. Next time, he'll have more help, as investors are more willing to back a filmmaker who has proven he can make it to the summit of world cinema.
"I know that next time I'll have slightly more resources so I can pay my cast and crew what they deserve," Bahrani said.
Given the hardships and meager rewards, why does he keep pushing the stone up the hill?
"The easiest answer is that I don't know how to do anything else," Bahrani said. "The longer answer is that the projects I'm doing give me energy. I was meeting with [potential future investors] IFC yesterday, when I was really sick, but just telling them about the film made me feel better."
In March, Man Push Cart will play at the New Directors/New Films series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Look for a general theatrical release in late 2006.
David Fellerath and Laura Boyes, contributing Indy reviewer and curator of the N.C. Museum of Art's film series, will discuss Sundance, the NCMA series and other film-related topics at Barnes & Noble in Cary on Wednesday, Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. Call 467-3866 for details.