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Alissa Wilkinson

Redirected Attention

The films of Ramin Bahrani.

In his 2005 feature debut Man Push Cart, Iranian American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani's cinematic signature is already evident: highly watchable low-budget tragedy, laced with comedy, telling the stories of people who function as furniture in the reality of most art-house audiences' everyday lives. Ten years later, he'd be looking at the housing crisis in 2015's 99 Homes, but for his first three films, restricted by budget, Bahrani worked mostly with non-actors, training his camera on the extraordinary and mundane lives of immigrants in America, those who get overlooked.

That word, overlooked, is worth dwelling upon for a moment. It signals a number of behaviors: to look past; to look over; to see but not see. One power the filmmaker wields, uniquely among artists, is to direct our visual attention anew in a way that resists and counteracts our habitual overlooking. Staring at a stranger's face isn't allowed in polite society, but filmmakers can give us that power (or force it upon us) simply by directing our gaze and moving in close. And what we can't get from a photograph—the dynamic emotion that changes just below the surface of a face, only observable when we spend time watching—is a deep, moving potential in film. Now, as observers, we see people with more clarity. We can no longer overlook them. There's nowhere else to look.

Man Push Cart—which premiered at the Venice Film Festival—is the perfect introduction to Bahrani's films of attention. The protagonist is Ahmad (non-actor Ahmad Razvi, who Bahrani spotted working in a pastry shop), a once-successful Pakistani rockstar who now slings coffee from one of those ubiquitous metal carts that dot midtown Manhattan, serving up hot drinks and pastries to early-morning bankers and businesspeople. Ahmad, we slowly gather, migrated to the US from Lahore with his wife, but she died, and his in-laws—who blame him for her death, for reasons we never discover—now care for his small son and restrict Ahmad's access to him. Ahmad pushes the cart to its spot every morning before the sun rises and pulls it back later in the day before hawking porn DVDs on the sidewalk and picking up odd jobs to make extra cash.

The longer we live alongside Ahmad, the more shadowy and blurred his days become, marked by lack of sleep and a string of frustrating encounters. He works constantly. He preps the cart methodically every day, stuffing the blue "We Are Pleased To Serve You" cups with teabags. He and his regulars maintain the kind of friendly relationship you have with someone you see every day but don't care about in the least. A wealthy Pakistani businessman recognizes him from his rock album—while Ahmad is painting his living room—and seems to make overtures of friendship, but they only go so far. And Ahmad's endless labor is no insurance against those all too ready to cut corners. His fate becomes Sisyphean: three steps forward, two and a half back.

Ahmad reappears as a minor character in Bahrani's 2008 feature Chop Shop, the story of two teenage siblings trying to build and sustain a life in Willets Point, an area of Queens behind Shea Stadium and Citifield, where the Mets play. Sometimes called "The Iron Triangle"—or, in The Great Gatsby, the Valley of Ashes, where Tom Buchanan's mistress lived—Willets Point has been a hot topic in New York City politics for the past few years; in 2013, the City Council approved a highly controversial proposal to raze and redevelop the area, constructing 2,490 housing units, a shopping center, and an entertainment complex. (Not so long ago, Willets Point had only one legal resident.)

Ale and Izze, the 12- and 16-year-old Latino siblings at the center of Chop Shop, likely wouldn't be able to live in even the 1,000 "affordable" housing units the city plans to construct. They share a little loft above a garage. Until you spot Shea Stadium in the background, you barely realize they're in the United States, let alone New York City. They're trying to build and sustain a life, but their parents are never mentioned; school is an abstraction. They dream of a brighter future, a sure outcome of the food truck that Ale is saving to buy and operate.

As in Man Push Cart, most of the film's running time is given to observing daily life, each scene slowly building into a tale that inverts the American Dream. And Ale's optimism about the bright future that awaits them in a city full of opportunity makes him an easy target. Alas, Ahmad arrives a bit too late to save Ale from that fate, but it's also clear from Chop Shop that Ahmad's luck has not turned since we saw him last. He's more cynical, less forgiving. The Land of Opportunity hasn't delivered on its promises, and unfortunately, the more they work, the worse the fall is.

Both these films are about a particularly New York breed of poverty and immigration, but Bahrani is more interested in his characters than in making some kind of easily distilled point—and that's significant. Ale and Izze and Ahmad are not sainted poor who transform the lives of the clueless white people they interact with: they're just people in a situation in life most of us don't know anything about. I walk by many coffee and donut carts in the city. Every New Yorker has dodged little kids selling candy bars on the subways. But with Bahrani's films in my head, I've begun to see what I had overlooked.

Ramin Bahrani was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to Iranian parents. He graduated from Columbia University, where he now teaches in the filmmaking program. He cites a number of Iranian filmmakers among his influences, but is also clearly in the line of the neo-realists—the Italian filmmakers of the mid-20th century who made movies that shifted focus away from the glamorous and wealthy to the poor and ordinary. The neo-realists humanized the marginalized, giving them stories with rich detail and texture that reckon with poverty and suffering without false sentiment. In this vein, Bahrani has a lot in common with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Two Days, One Night; The Son; The Kid With a Bike), contemporary Belgian filmmakers who focus on stories about working-class people in their home country. The Dardennes also serve as executive producers on films like Thomas Bidegain's Les Cowboys (2015), about the challenges Europeans face due to global immigration.

Like the Dardennes, Bahrani doesn't make overtly political statements about justice, immigration, or poverty in his immigrant films (and even the unavoidably political 99 Homes retains the complexity of its topic). These are just people. These are their lives. They're unequivocally tragic stories, but not because of circumstances—just because life is both comic and tragic.

Bahrani's third film, Goodbye Solo, moved away from New York City to his home turf. Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané, in his first feature film) is an exuberant Senegalese immigrant driving a cab in Winston-Salem. One day he picks up William (Red West), an old man who is estranged from his family and plotting his own suicide. William hires Solo to drive him to Blowing Rock, where Solo assumes he will kill himself—and yet, as William makes preparations, Solo tries to reconcile him to his family, while running into a few difficulties himself.

On paper, the plot looks a lot like a permutation of Driving Miss Daisy, but instead of William being the focus and Solo being the guardian angel (or, worse, another instance of the so-called "magical Negro" trope), Bahrani positions this as a story about a friendship, with both characters carrying equal weight—in fact, if anything, this is Solo's story. We see the world through his eyes. We watch him pay attention, and in so doing, learn to look anew ourselves.

A deep sense of melancholy pervades all three of Bahrani's immigrant films, even when characters are experiencing moments of joy. Talking to Sam Adams for The A.V. Club about the film, Bahrani explained, "I cannot eliminate the sadness. [To do that] doesn't match my thinking or my cinema or the real world. I know Hollywood loves to … just give you happy. I think happy and hope is more hopeful when you acknowledge that there's awful things too."

That's precisely why Bahrani allows his characters to retain their dignity. Out in the audience, those of us who are used to walking by these characters on our way to work aren't made to feel guilty, but we're not let off the hook, either, because the point is simple: others aren't there as mere accessories in our world. They are real. They experience emotion and difficulty and fear and disappointment and exhaustion and passion. We "identify" with them not in some vague tribute to the "shared human condition," but because we realize how often we reduce those among us to two-dimensional backdrops for our lives.

Bahrani's films have yet to make inroads with American audiences, despite being set in the United States. And yet they represent the best potential of American filmmaking, to tell stories about those we may not know, to pay attention for a while to those we overlook. The gift of redirected attention is not always comfortable, but it's a vital gift that art gives—and that Bahrani delivers with humor, grace, and dignity.

Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's critic at large and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. Her criticism appears in RogerEbert.com, Vulture, The Washington Post, Paste, The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She is co-author, with Robert Joustra, of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World, just out from Eerdmans.

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