Bashu, the Little Stranger

English Title: Bashu, the Little Stranger

Original Title: Bashu, Gharibe-i Koochak

Country of Origin: Iran

Studio: Utopia Distribution

Director: Bahram Beyzaie

Screenplay: Bahram Beyzaie

Cinematographer: Firooz Malekzadeh

Editor: Bahram Beyzaie

Runtime: 120 minutes

Genre: Drama

Starring/Cast: Soosan Taslimi, Adnan Afraviyan

Year: 1986

Volume: Iranian

At the time of the Iran-Iraq war, during an air raid, a frightened boy jumps onto the covered back of a truck, which passes through deserts, mountains and valleys. The next morning as the driver is having breakfast in a coffee house the boy emerges from under the cover to find himself in a quiet verdant road. Then scared from a roadwork explosion, he runs across the woods and paddy fields. A village woman, Na’I, finds and offers him food and water. He does not eat, but follows her to find a shelter. Na’i traps him in her barn and leaves him some food. The next morning she speaks to him, but her Gilaki Persian is as incomprehensible to him as his Khuzi Arabic is to her. Na’i learns his name by repeating her name and asking about things. His name is Bashu.
Na’i’s neighbours ridicule Bashu’s dark complexion, but Na’i insists that he will be white once she washes him. They gather in Na’i’s house to convince her to send Bashu away. He may be a thief or have a disease. But Na’i sends them away. Na’i nurses Bashu who has fallen sick. In a letter to her husband, Na’i tells him about Bashu and her intention to keep him until his relatives are found. With the sound of a passing jet, Bashu starts shouting and hides. The children laugh at him and they fight. In the middle of the fight, Bashu hesitates between picking up a stone or a soiled Persian textbook. He picks up the book and reads: ‘Iran is our country. We are all Iran’s children.’ People are surprised. Now that he understands ‘the language of books’, he is more easily accepted.
Bashu gets lost in the day market. Na’i is sad. As people gather to criticize her or express their happiness, Bashu appears in the road. Frightened by their angry questions, he backs off and falls into the river. Na’i saves him with her fishing net. While dancing together for the fertility of the land, the children fight with Bashu. Na’i defends him. The villagers are angry at Na’i for beating their children, but when the children reconcile, they calm down. In a letter, Na’i’s husband asks her to send Bashu away. They cannot afford another child. Bashu finds the letter and runs away after reading it. In the middle of a storm, Na’i finds him hiding in a ramshackle barn and brings him back. Na’i falls sick. Bashu tries to heal her by drumming on a basin.
Later when Bashu is guarding the field, a man asks him for water and praises him for his scarecrow. Then Bashu finds the man talking to Na’i. She looks upset. He picks up a stick, but learning he is Na’i’s husband, asks for a handshake. The man’s arm is missing. Having realized what has happened, Bashu cries and embraces the man. They hear animals in the field and shout and run together to shoo them away.

Bashu, the Little Stranger is a deceptively simple film about compassion and adoption. Yet it is also a mythopoetic subversion of Iranian tragic tales of loss and belonging, akin to the myth of Siyavash; and a realistic statement against war and the efforts of the post-revolutionary government to reinstate patriarchal values. As the last film in Beyzaie’s village trilogy, it brings two of his major characters − the powerful independent woman and the wandering visionary orphan − together to redefine the meaning of womanhood and nationhood in Iran. Thus unlike Gharibeh va Meh/The Stranger and the Fog (1974) and Tcherike-ye Tara/The Ballad of Tara (1978) his stranger is not a man coming from a violent unknown or a forgotten past, but an Arab Iranian boy dislocated due to a war imposed by ‘an Arab nationalist’. If the first two films bring the present and the past and the known and the unknown together to negotiate an Iranian identity that has to overcome its obsession with death and heroes, Bashu explores the possibility of communication across geographical, linguistic, and ethnic divides to construct an Iranian identity cognizant of its ethnic variety. While reflecting on language and ethnicity as markers of otherness, it depicts the process that transforms Bashu’s ‘Otherness’ into sameness for Na’i, and through Na’i’s agency, for the village. As the first film in Iranian cinema which challenges the idea of a monolithic nationhood, it promotes an ethnically aware sense of togetherness by depicting intense humane emotions in scenes where protagonists speak in regional languages. Na’i’s Gilaki Persian and Bashu’s Khuzi Arabic work with the expressive beauty of their faces to intensify Beyzaie’s symbolic orchestration of the visual and auditory images that depict Iran as a microcosm, a multi-ethnic nation that has to acknowledge its variety to transcend the limitations of ethnocentrism.
The film begins with a series of images and a sequence of ritual Persian, Arabic, and Turcoman music forms that take the spectator on a journey in time and space which emphasizes variety to suggest the emptiness of the artificial markers of Iranian nationhood; the Aryan ethnic purity and Persian high culture of the Pahlavi period (1925−79) and the Shiite religiosity of the post-revolutionary government. This opening prepares us for a symbolic reading of the encounter between Bashu and Na’i, in which Na’i, as a human goddess, or as Iran, presents open arms to the lost child of its past denials. With Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980, many Arab Iranians migrated from Khuzestan to various parts of Iran. Despite some initial conflicts, due to the lack of accommodation, these people easily settled in their host communities. Beyzaie’s film is a poetic celebration of this significant development. It encounters the gibberish of Iran’s radical nationalism by marking Arabness as one of the modalities of being Iranian and glorifies Iran, as a country with a woman’s name, by showing how it acts as a mother to a dislocated minority within its borders.
Na’i’s role as the divine spirit of Iran is revealed from the first scene the spectator encounters her. Her head abruptly comes up to fill the frame in a challenging close-up that confronts the gaze of the spectator with a powerful gaze that provokes admiration rather than voyeuristic lust. The imposition of the Islamic codes of conduct during the 1980s required that women had to be covered in all scenes and could not be shown in their intimate relations and in close-ups. Beyzaie challenges this imposition by offering a new kind of woman to Iranian cinema. Na’i is as real as a village woman, but she is also divine. The scene when Bashu find himself under the gaze of Na’i and her children does not take place in the early 1980s, but in a timeless zone, in the junction of myth, metaphor, politics and history. So are the scenes when Na’i nurses Bashu in the middle of the night, washes him to make him white, fishes him out of water as if giving birth to him, or when she immerses herself in a sama (mystic dance) of child labour as Bashu conducts a healing zaar ritual for her. Her natural beauty and her ability to commune with hunting birds and other animals remind us of the image of Anahita, the hospitable ‘beautiful-bodied’, ‘unornamented’ ‘mother of waters’ and ‘goddess of rivers’, standing under the figure of a hunting bird in a Sassanid plate.
The film also evokes the sense of space and time in indigenous performing traditions. As a technique in ta’ziyeh, goriz (diversion) allows movements between different locations and periods to relate all the major events of Abrahamic religions to the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. Predicting the use of psychological time and space in modern literature and that of flashback and foreshadowing in cinema, the technique suggests the power of association in the human mind. Beyzaie’s film uses goriz as a technique to give psychological depth to his characters. The mirage of Bashu’s mother appears to help him and Na’i negotiate their new relationship. At first she only appears to Bashu to act as a bridge between his past and his present. But after Bashu ‘becomes’ Na’i’s son as she fishes him out of the river, in scenes that suggest Na’i’s sympathy with an absent mother, the mirage only appears to Na’i to help her accept Bashu as her son. Beyzaie invests on these surrealistic interventions and delays the use of formal Persian as a linking medium to allow his protagonists to rediscover each other through sympathy, compassion, and the ritual enactment of common pain and shared loss rather than language. He also includes several fertility and healing rituals to enrich this ritual aspect and to show the similarity of Iranian peoples despite their differences.

Author of this review: Saeed Talajooy