By Shaun Lee Case (El Sobrante, CA)
In Bahram Beizei’s film Bashu, the Little Stranger, the transformation of Bashu from a South Iranian war orphan to the eldest son of a Northern Iranian family is representative of Iran’s transformation during the Iran-Iraq war through national unification, from a third world country to a world power.
Beizei illustrates the vast differences between Southern Iran and Northern Iran, unified through the shared experiences of Naii and Bashu. He does this in order to make an argument for binding a divided Iran while simultaneously celebrating the diversity (cultural, language, regional, skin color) that are all Persian. In the end, Bashu is a cleverly disguised nationalistic and social propaganda piece, using a familiar theme in film, the ‘family-in-crisis’ motif, to convey its message. Beizei illustrates his idea of a united Iran through the shared common experiences and daily struggles faced together by the main characters, Naii and Bashu.
Naii and Bashu couldn’t be from more divergent realities. The film opens upon a battle scene in a desolate desert village: buildings exploding, bodies burning, film footage so convincing it must be authentic. Bashu’s homeland is Southern Iran, a hot, arid, rocky desert besieged by planes and bombs. When we first see Bashu, he is escaping a war zone as a stowaway in a truck heading North. When he arrives in Northern Iran, the dissimilarity is breathtaking – instead of barren desert, we see lush, green, forested farmland with wooden buildings and paved roads. The staggering visual disparity in skin tone between Bashu, Naii, and all of her fellow villagers situates the central racial theme in the film – the Northern Iranians are much lighter in skin tone than Bashu. They stare at Bashu; in fact many have never seen someone with skin as dark as his, saying, “Where’d you get that piece of coal?…that cave jinni…that bugbear?” In one scene, Naii exposes her own ignorance about Bashu when she naively tries to wash him off in the river, genuinely believing he is simply ‘very dirty’. The second significant barrier to overcome is their language barrier. These two Iranians don’t speak the same dialect or language. Naii believes Bashu to be a mute until he breaks down, frustrated and crying, “Where am I? Am I still in Iran? My mother was burned up and my father fell down into a hole…”
Naii is a compassionate communicator and protective mother, standing up for Bashu and speaking out against the racism and prejudice of her village elders. She identifies with nature, calling out to crows, dogs, yelling at the boar that threatens her fields. Naii feeds and houses Bashu, and keeps him safe from the villagers. Bashu helps her by carrying water, heavy baking stones, taking care of Naii’s children, catching the shopkeeper shortchanging Naii and building a scarecrow for the field. In all respects, he performs the role of eldest son.
The central cinematic metaphor – shown only in images and not connected to plot – is the scene showing Bashu’s dilemma: Bashu has to choose between two worlds, between life and death, his previous world and Naii’s. In the scene, Naii is carrying a ladder, and she calls to Bashu for help. We see Bashu looking at his dead parents, enshrouded, wearing death masks, and he follows them into the desert. Naii walks past the figures in the opposite direction, dragging the ladder through sand, calling out to Bashu. Bashu finally makes a choice for life – he picks up the ladder and helps her carry it. The ladder strongly symbolizes Naii’s efforts to transport this boy out of his personal tragedy, from out of the land of the dead and into the world of the living. Together, they enter a new Persian world, two Iranians from different cultures, united in their efforts.
Bashu is legitimized further as a member of this world, first on paper in Naii’s emotionally moving letter to her husband (“…he is my son…a son of the sun and the Earth…”) then by the prodigal father figure in the emotionally potent scene at the film’s end (Bashu: “Who are you?” Father: “It is father. I’ve been waiting for you all along.”)
The visual metaphor of unification is cemented in the final sequence, when the three (father, Naii, and Bashu) simultaneously sense the boar in the field and collectively chase it away; a field of white doves, symbolizing peace, fly up as they run through the field, bearing down on the invader. Fending off the invading boar brings the family out of crisis, uniting Naii with her husband, and securing a position in the family for Bashu. Looking at the larger metaphors at play, the boar represents not only the bigotry of the village being driven out of their home, but also the retreating Iraqi army many miles away, defeated by a now united Persia.
i “Jinn – creatures of fire; along with angels and humans, one of the three intelligent species created by God”