A New Way Must Be Seen

By Sukhdev Sandhu


Iranian-American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani finds the hope of life in migrant experience

“I never use 50 people to block the street while filming. Why block life? I never say 'action': the word 'action' means, ‘end reality, begin acting.’ Who would want to do that? You want the reality to continue.”

Just when it seemed as if American independent cinema was dead, engulfed by a landslide of cutesy ironists and mumblecore mitherers, along comes Ramin Bahrani. Man Push Cart (2005), Chop Shop (2008), Goodbye Solo (2009): these films are little known in the United Kingdom and, outside scattered clusters of cinephiles, attracted only limited attention in the United States. Yet rarely, if ever, have the first three films of any director announced an artistic vision so coherent and so fully formed, so gentle and so incisive.

Man Push Cart, like all of Bahrani’s films, has a storyline slender to the point of invisibility. And, again like all three, it’s about social invisibles. A Pakistani immigrant and former rock singer called Ahmad lives in New York where he makes a modest income selling coffee and doughnuts to commuters from his push cart. His wife is dead and, although he is friendly with a woman at a nearby magazine stand, there is little romance in the offing. Every day he pushes his cart, every day he sells his bagels, and every day something dies within him.

chop-shop-ramin-bahrani.jpgChop Shop, 2008

Chop Shop
is also set in New York, in Willets Point near Shea Stadium, a long-neglected slum district full of junkyards and body shops, where damaged cars are fixed and stolen cars are repainted and repurposed. Here, in the tiny back room of a garage, live two orphans: a twelve-year-old boy called Alejandro and his older sister Isamar, who turns tricks for truckers. Alejandro, like Ahmad, is a ferocious worker and eager to put his savings to good use; to buy a rusty old truck from which he plans to sell tacos. He is hugely resourceful. His dream burns brightly. Success seems always to elude him.

Goodbye Solo focuses on a Senegal-born taxi driver living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who finds himself becoming absorbed by one of his passengers, a grumpy old white Southerner on the verge of killing himself. The driver, living with a testy Latino partner and forced to take fares from low-grade drug dealers, tries to talk to the Southerner, to make him laugh, to get him caught up in the rhythms and possibilities of daily life. It’s difficult and not always rewarding. But that connection is something he never gives up hope on making.

man-push-cart-ramin-bahrani.jpgMan Push Cart, 2005

Bahrani’s films are less works about migration as exercises in migratory aesthetics, using men and women new to cities, or operating almost unnoticed in its corners and at its fringes, to offer fresh takes on contemporary life. Rather, they’re anatomies of isolation that shine troubling, revelatory spotlights on the kind of male figures - hawkers, pedlars, bus boys, street sweepers, flower sellers – who represent exactly the kind of subaltern labourers rarely seen on television screens or at multiplex cinemas.

Bahrani was born in 1975 to Iranian parents and the imprint of directors such as Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf is evident in every frame of his films: long takes, minimal dialogue, outdoor locations and natural lighting, use of non-professional actors, importance to characters of making journeys either by foot or by car. Their ‘accented cinema’ very much informs his own philosophy.

goodbye-solo-ramin-bahrani.jpgGoodby Solo, 2009

“I lean towards the poetics of life rather than the poetics of politics,” he once told me. “I'm interested in the human condition and its relation to the world. That said, I have the good fortune of being an American with an Iranian eye. There's something about having a dual identity or dual culture that encourages your eye to see different things and in a different way. There's a Persian poem: ‘One’s eye must be clean / A new way must be seen.”

Recently, Bahrani has been heralded as part of an emerging wave of neo-neo-realist American directors that includes Lucy Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy), Lance Hammer (Ballast) and So Yong Kim (Treeless Mountain). That makes sense, not just because Italian neo-realism was a formative influence on Iranian cinema, but because its fondness for ‘Everyman’ figures – wandering the rubble-strewn streets of post-war Rome and Milan like fallen heroes from Greek tragedy – pre-echo the seemingly endless drifting of the characters in Bahrani’s films.

These Sisyphean quests and traversals are part of the foundational narratives of first-generation migrants. They resonate especially loudly in this present era of economic meltdown and widespread social precarity: we are all, even those of us who thought we were settled and sinecured, forced to confront the possibility of the ground beneath our feet disappearing.

Bahrani’s work, in which individuals who are tired and buffeted beyond measure refuse to accept their fates, who face defeat and erasure with clear-eyed defiance, assumes a heightened poignancy. “My films,” Bahrani says, “have the hope of life, not the hope of Hollywood.”

Sukhdev Sandhu is one of our finest and most committed cultural writers. His books include London Calling, I’ll Get My Coat and Night Haunts.