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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 ...