SxSW 2022 Interview – EL CARRITO director Zahida Pirani

“EL CARRITO is a short narrative drama about a street vendor named Nelly, whose existence is held together by a thread. She has learned not to trust anyone but is forced to take a leap of faith or be resigned in her position forever. While the film portrays the struggles of an immigrant woman, it is a more universal story about discovering human connection in what can feel like a harsh, dehumanizing world. I shot EL CARRITO in my community in Queens, New York, which is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the world. My intention was to bring viewers into a world they wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to experience.” Director Zahida Pirani on EL CARRITO which screens at SxSW 2022.

Welcome to SxSW and congratulations! Is this your first SxSW experience?

This is my first time at SxSW and I’m extremely excited! We were very lucky to wrap shooting on EL CARRITO just a couple of days before the pandemic shut down New York City. I wasn’t sure if we would have an in-person festival experience, so to be part of SxSW this year as it returns in-person feels like a gift.

How did you first hear about SxSW and wishing to send your project into the festival?

I’ve known about SxSW for quite some time since becoming a filmmaker. I’ve heard about the festival’s unique energy and what a great experience it can be, so I’m thrilled EL CARRITO will be screening this year. SxSW has always been a festival I’ve admired in terms of its film selections and it was at the top of my list for EL CARRITO. A lot of films and shorts that I love were introduced to a wider audience at SxSW, like Destin Daniel Cretton’s SHORT TERM 12.

Tell me about the idea behind EL CARRITO!

Before becoming a filmmaker, I was a community organizer in New York City for many years. Through my work, I became familiar with groups who worked with street vendors and decided to make a documentary short called JUDITH: PORTRAIT OF A STREET VENDOR. When I would go out with Judith to shoot, she was constantly worried that her cart would get stolen. As an admirer of Italian Neorealism, I wondered if I took the conceit of the stolen bike from the film Bicycle Thieves, in this case, a stolen cart, and placed it in today’s culture from the perspective of a working-class immigrant woman, what would that look like? That’s how EL CARRITO was born.

Who are some of your creative inspirations? Any particular filmmaking talent or movie that inspired you?

Besides the influence Bicycle Thieves had on EL CARRITO, my other big inspiration was the work of the Dardenne Brothers, particularly their film ROSETTA which won the Palme d’Or in 1999. Like the Dardenne Brothers, my background is in documentary filmmaking, but when I first saw Rosetta I knew I wanted to become a narrative filmmaker. I loved how they brought documentary techniques into their filmmaking. 

How did you put this together from a technical viewpoint? What sort of cameras/lenses did you use and/or did you have any creative challenges?

I wanted to shoot EL CARRITO in a verité style, which not only supported the hybrid narrative-documentary storytelling approach I was taking, but also revealed the character’s state of mind. My director of photography, Marc Patterson, chose the ARRI Amira which is great for shooting handheld, especially in the bustling neighborhoods where the film takes place. I had the thought early on that I would not use music in the film and instead worked with my production sound mixer, Brandon Sequeira, who made sure we captured the clean, natural sounds of Queens, New York. This soundscape became the film’s score, highlighting the emotional and tonal beats of the story. 

One of the biggest challenges we faced when shooting in the busy neighborhoods of Northwest Queens was not being able to control foot traffic. However, our documentary approach helped us to be flexible, and in the end, we captured beautiful, spontaneous moments with real people that were not originally scripted. For example, when Nelly is searching frantically for her cart, actress Eli Zavala interacts with both background actors and real people in the neighborhood. I believe these moments gave the film a sense of authenticity and realism that we wouldn’t otherwise have had if we tried to control our environment. 

What would you suggest to film festivals as a way to show more short films or make them more accessible to audiences across the country?

The pandemic has made online programming an option at festivals. I think for shorts, in particular, a hybrid in-person and online screening is a good way to expose audiences to short films. This is especially true for people who wouldn’t otherwise have the means or interest to attend festivals in person or watch shorts. I still believe that the in-person festival experience is very important for both filmmakers and audiences and for the art of filmmaking, but that a hybrid model, at least for shorts, might be something to consider for the long term.

If you had one piece of advice to offer someone to get their start as a creator or filmmaker in the industry, what would you suggest?

My biggest piece of advice is to follow your unique voice as a storyteller and to make the film you would like to watch. As a writer and director, I love getting feedback on scripts as I write, or cuts of the film as I edit. This process helps me see things from a different perspective and can sometimes lead to creative breakthroughs. However, it is very important to be in touch with your own vision so that you know what feedback to take or not. There are a hundred different ways to tell the same story and it is impossible to make a film that every person in the world will love. So you might as well make the film that you want and would like to watch.  

And finally, what is your favourite short film of all time?

This is a hard one because there are so many that I love! I recently revisited one of my favorites, Andrea Arnold’s WASP. Even after watching it several times, I still notice small details, such as the protagonist’s actions or dialogue, that I didn’t pick up on before. It’s a wonderful example of externalizing a character’s internal conflict. I also like that the film portrays the protagonist, a struggling single mother, in a nuanced way. In EL CARRITO, I also tell the story of a woman struggling in her daily existence, but in a way that shows her multi-dimensionality, which includes revealing her flaws. That is one of my goals as a filmmaker: to bring real, complex women of color characters to the screen.

This film and many others like it will be showing at South By Southwest taking place March 11-20. For more information point your browser to!

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