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Short Film - SXSW 2022

As her short film El Carrito premieres at SXSW, an emotional drama about a street vendor’s fear that her livelihood has been ripped away from her, writer/director Zahida Pirani spoke with our writer Peter Gray about the inspiration behind the film, the idea of chasing “the American Dream”, and how it has been to play at such a festival as SXSW.

Q: Congratulations on screening at SXSW.  I've always just loved the festival because I think it really gives one of the best platforms for storytellers to tell stories that not every festival gives time for.  We're so consumed with that mainstream mentality that so many narratives adhere to, so it's always good to see other stories being told, and I think short films tend to be the best at doing so.  How did it come to be that your film, El Carrito, would play at SXSW?

I used to do documentary before I did narrative and even for documentary, I would hear about (SXSW). And it was at the top of my list. I feel like a lot of films that I've loved have been introduced to wider audiences at SXSW, so I think what you were saying is right, which is that they are willing to take a chance and show stuff that maybe isn't the “trendiest thing” or whatever, and I've adored some of the films that have come out of (SXSW) like Short Term 12. And then there are several shorts that I have loved that have actually premiered at South By.  It’s always been on my mind and then the other piece was, and I feel so lucky, that we get to show the film when the festivals are coming back in person. It's such a gift really.  This is my first time (here) and I'd always heard about the unique energy and how they just really try to create spaces for people to meet and feel and it's all true!

Q: How’s the audience reaction been?

It's been so great.  I'm being approached by people and potential collaborators and other filmmakers. And it’s only been a few days, and yesterday was our screening, and I'm already connecting with so many people who are interested in the film, and then my future work, which is fabulous. So, the response has been great. Also, people are so interested the way we made (this film).  It is unique in that we did a lot of community collaboration.  We actually worked with street vendors to make this film, and people from the street vending community.  (I) very much approached it as a documentary.  I brought some of my documentary background into the film. So we have scenes that are unscripted in the film, where we did improvisation with real people in the community.

Q: I was going to ask about the inspiration behind your style of filmmaking.  It did feel very bleak. When you talk about documentaries, this film felt so real and almost voyeuristic because you’re right there with those characters.  And you just want to reach out and help them.  Where did the inspiration for the story originate for you?

There’s a few elements that came together.  I was a community organiser before becoming a filmmaker.  So, the neighbourhoods that you see in the film are where I have lived and worked for, like, 17 years. It's actually my community that you see on the screen. And then the other pieces, I had a lot of friends that are in the street vendor community and work with street vendors as community organisers, so I made this documentary short, called Judith: Portrait of a Street Vendor, quite a few years ago.  When I would go out with Judith to film, there was this constant anxiety that her cart would get stolen, like it's a constant worry for vendors. It happens all the time.

I'm a fan of Italian neo-realism cinema (too), so, you know, I kind of took that idea of bicycle thieves of the stolen cart and, and applied it to this situation, which is very common, and kind of put it in the present day in this context.  That’s how the idea originated. And I'm so glad you feel that sense of you feel like you're there, because that was the vision. That was the idea. And part of what I wanted to do is bring people into a world they wouldn't otherwise have the chance to experience.

Q: It really is incredible because you can see her just trying so hard, hustling so hard.  It speaks to that idea of chasing your dream, but it’s also challenging that ideal of the “American dream.  Was that something you were going for?

Totally.  It's always about the American dream, right? It's something we're taught from a very young age here, that there's this American dream, and everybody can access it. And it's not true. I grew up in a working class immigrant family. And it's very different. Depending on what class circumstances you come from, depending on your immigration status…I mean, not everybody has equal access to the American dream. And so, for me, one element I really worked at was that the main character in the film, she's a big believer in the American dream, she's trying to get her piece of the pie. And I think (her) cart represents that it’s her vehicle to get there. So what happens when you take it away?

What happens to her American dream, because that stuff happens all the time.  In the end, I wanted her to sort of discover and see the people around her a little bit differently. And it's really about community. And I think that a big piece of the immigrant experience in the USA is community and that support of each other. I don't see that as much in the immigrant stories being put out.  It was important to say “Look, all of our stories are not American Dream stories.”

Q: You utilised silence really well in the film, and it made me realise that there isn't really much of a soundtrack here. It's all natural sound. Was that an intentional additive in the film?

That was definitely the vision from the beginning. I worked with so many amazing sound folks on this film.  Ronald Eng was the sound designer and sound mixer. And he actually works with David Lynch a lot, so I was really just honoured that he wanted to work on this.  I have to say, Brandon Sequeira, who was my production sound mixer, did an excellent job of capturing the sounds of New York.  A lot of the filmmakers I admire and was inspired by when making this film like the Darden Brothers in Belgium, they don't use music usually, and I thought how cool it would be if we could use the sounds of New York as our score.  For example, when she goes down the stairs and her wheel breaks, and she sees the other vendor, and she thinks it's her cart, you hear this jackhammer, because (mentally) that's where she's at. She's really angry. I so appreciate when people comment on the sound because we worked a lot on it.

Q: And filming itself, was this done during the pandemic?

We actually wrapped two days before New York City shut down for the pandemic.  It’s interesting because this is like our anniversary this week. We wrapped this two years ago, right before COVID shut everything down. We were very, very lucky. And we didn't know what was going on, nobody did and, like literally, the day or two after the wrap party, everything shut down.

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