The film begins in the war-torn south of Iran, and the opening sequence unfolds like an action film. Bombs hit homes and other civilian buildings, date trees disappear amidst smoke, and a woman who has been set on fire because of the explosions spins in vain to extinguish the flames. Rather incredibly, a trucker stops in the middle of falling bombs to merely check his tyres, giving a scared young boy the opportunity to take shelter in the back of the truck. The trucker, unaware of his stowaway, drives across the country. Several long shots reveal the diverse landscape of Iran. Thinking that explosions aimed at clearing the way for a tunnel are bombs, the young boy jumps out from the car when the trucker has stopped for a tea break and finds himself in the lush and unfamiliar streets of the northern province of Gilan. Wandering through rice fields, he is found by two young children and their mother. The remainder of the film captures the developing bond between the boy, Bashu, and his adoptive mother, Naii, and the challenges they face in their relationship with one another and with the intrusive people of the village.
The 1980s was not a good decade for the Iranian film industry. The 1979 Revolution, which brought the establishment of the Islamic Republic and the eight year war with Iraq that began soon thereafter, resulted in a number of political and economic barriers for filmmakers. Nonetheless, films were produced in this period and Bahram Beizai’s Bashu, The Little Stranger was among the handful that was critically acclaimed. Made at the height of the war, the film was completed by 1986 but did not get clearance from censors until the war’s end and was not publicly screened until 1989. A stylised film revealing Beizai’s identity as a playwright and a theatre director, Bashu, The Little Stranger, casts a critical eye on Iranian society. On one level a story of familial and national unity, it ultimately raises many questions about the structures undergirding concepts of family and nation.
Beizai tells the story of the boy’s relationship to the family and his accidental new home with an often realist style that is punctuated by symbolic figures and dramatic shots. Although somewhat afraid of the boy at first, the mother takes him in, initiating clashes with nosy family and neighbours who cannot understand why she would take in a boy who looks so different and speaks a language they cannot understand. In capturing their developing relationship, the film gently raises sensitive questions about the bonds of belonging to family and nation. Similarly, it points to the asymmetrical experience of war.1 While Naii’s hardships are not wholly disconnected from the war economy, her experiences cannot compare to that of orphaned Bashu. The scars of that trauma are often represented by Bashu’s deceased parents and sister, who died in the film’s opening sequence, in their numerous eerie appearances on screen when Bashu is in Naii’s village.
Silent and dressed in the local clothing of the Arab minority in southern Iran, they are incongruous against the backdrop of crops and dwellings characteristic of provinces in the north. They are visual reminders of how Bashu’s war-torn past casts a sad shadow over him, and Bashu often covers his face and cries when he sees them. Just as Naii and the rest of the villagers cannot see the ghosts of his parents, they are blind to his suffering as an orphan of war as well. In one scene, Naii looks on, Bashu, gharibeye koochak/Bashu: The Little Stranger (1989) 81 uncomprehending, as Bashu stiffens in fear at the sound of a plane overhead. Indeed, there is no apparent recognition of the war and its effects by anyone in the village.
The parents’ various appearances also indicate how Naii comes to replace Bashu’s biological family as his protector. As local boys pick on Bashu, a medium shot shows Bashu’s mother placing her hands over her eyes; Naii slides into the frame, alert that something is awry. She then walks away, leaving the mother behind, and the next shot is of Naii waist down, wielding a stick and walking through the fields. Whereas Bashu’s mother could not bear to watch her child’s harassment and was in any case helpless to intervene, Naii steps in to find and scare off the kids by hitting them with a stick. At the same time, Bashu’s parents also act as guardian angels of a sort. Bashu flees a number of times, sometimes for silly reasons, such as not wanting to bathe, sometimes for more serious ones, such as after reading an angry letter by Naii’s husband reprimanding her for keeping a strange boy. In this latter case, Bashu’s mother stands in the road, pointing out to Naii the path that Bashu has taken.
By the time we reach the film’s last segments, approximately 25 minutes before its end, Bashu’s parents no longer appear. The bond between Naii and Bashu has been cemented: she discards her husband’s letter, determined to keep Bashu. He cares for her when she is ill, and becomes her companion and helper in all aspects of farming life. When Naii’s husband arrives, he fights with his wife about keeping Bashu. But when Bashu comes to protect Naii from her husband, asking ‘Who is this man?’, the husband seems to have a sudden change of heart and answers, ‘Your father’. This surprising, if implausible, shift in the husband’s attitude eliminates the final obstacle to Bashu’s integration as a full-fledged member of his adopted family. The film concludes with their first joint activity as a newly formed nuclear family: running together through the fields while making loud noises to scare off animals from eating the crops.
The heart-warming conclusion is at first glance an affirmation of family and national bonds. In spite of the prying intrusions of villagers and their objections to Naii adopting the ‘charcoal black’ boy, Naii’s nuclear family fully embraces Bashu, and the lives of all family members are improved as a result. This familial integration can also be read as allegory for the national one: north and south come together, and the pull of belonging overcomes both superficial differences such as physical appearances as well as deeper ones such as differing languages. At the same time, the film casts light on the fragility of the ties that hold the diverse nation together, with a particular focus on Persian as the national language. Bashu can only communicate with the village children through the ‘book language’, poignantly evident in a scene where he starts reading ‘we are all children of Iran’ from a school textbook, but his accented Persian provokes laughter in the children whose own Persian bears the marks of the northern region’s accent. Naii’s only option for communicating with her husband when he is away is similarly restricted to Persian, though she herself cannot read or write. Persian makes communication possible but does not guarantee understanding or full participation of all involved: it is one basis for national unity but at the same time underscores differences as well. As such, Bashu’s acceptance into Naii’s family cannot be interpreted as a straightforward allegorical affirmation of the national bond. The story is clearly not one of a unified nation sharing the burdens of war. If that were the case, the entire village would have embraced Bashu. Instead, they shun him as racially other and show no awareness that he might be connected to the war-torn region of the south. In short, the film presents Bashu’s acceptance into the family as an exceptional feat and not a given.