Bashu, The Little Stranger (1986)
Written & Directed by Bahram Beyzai
There is an emphasis on homogenizing foreign cultures into a monolith. This does a disservice to the broad diversity that exists inside these borders. We sometimes forget that national borders are artificial things, and people are often corraled inside sovereignties they have no direct connection with. Bashu, the Little Stranger, chooses to displace a Southern Iranian from the Khuzestan province due to the Iraq-Iran War. By moving this person into the Caspian north, we see how prejudices and cultural dissonance affect how we treat our fellow citizens.
Bashu watches as his entire family is killed by an Iraqi bombing raid. He flees and stows away on a cargo truck passing through the territory. By the time he finally gets off, he’s in the wooded north, a far cry from his arid desert home in the south. Bashu finds safety in the home of a Na’i, a Gilak woman who is raising her two children alone while her husband searches for work elsewhere. There is a significant language divide that gets in the way of communication, but over time Bashu learns how to communicate with his new family. The more substantial impediment is Bashu’s post-traumatic stress from enduring the bombing raid and watching the deaths of his family.
One element powerfully prevalent throughout the film are ethnic prejudices embedded in Persian culture. Bashu is from an Arabic ethnic group and stands out against the fairer-skinned Gilak. There is no talk of being Iranian until the third act of the film when Bashu appeals to the community’s sense of shared nationality. At this point in Iran’s history, that had passed through a paradigm-shifting revolution and were facing an ongoing military conflict from Iraq. Having a unified people who didn’t allow ethnic differences to get in the way was an essential step towards building solidarity.
Director Bahram Beyzai intentionally seeks to focus on the strength of this diversity in establishing what it means to be Iranian. Bashu’s language is what keeps him at arm’s length from his savior and the village. Eventually, he can use Farsi as a middle ground to communicate with them all. Bashu shouts the iconic national phrase, “we are the children of Iran, Iran is our country.” But he does not divorce himself of his heritage, later performing a native song while playing on an upturned washtub for a drum. Beyzai seems to be saying that through Farsi, we can connect with each other, but it is essential not to lose those cultural elements that bring richness and beauty to Iran.
Beyzai is also challenging the patriarchal ideals that the Revolution brought to the forefront. The Ayatollah and conservative Islam attempted to reinstate the husband as the unquestionable head of the family. Na’i is given the full reigns of the household due to economic strife, an issue still not adequately addressed post-Shah. As a single parent she able to keep the family farm running, care for her children, sell their wares at the market, and help Bashu regain his humanity. Letters go back and forth between her and her husband with him expressing disagreement over letting Bashu into their home. He argues that they have so little and another mouth to feed puts more pressure on their economic status. Na’i feeds Bashu from her own share and has no qualms challenging the men and women of the village who see Bashu, an unwanted outsider.
Bashu is a profoundly moving film and beautifully acted. Once again, the realm of the spiritual is displayed on the screen. Bashu often sees specters of his family walking around the farm, and they only fade when he can begin healing from his trauma. Music plays a vital role, Bashu gets access to a flute, and we learn he was taught to play it in his old life. The soundtrack is full of energy and vitality with childlike voices that remind us of the most vulnerable in this volatile land. It’s no wonder that Bashu, The Little Stranger, was voted the best Iranian film of all-time in 1999 as it presents an endearing portrait of humanity and the ability to bridge the cultural chasms that exist between us.