Bashu, the Little Stranger, screening tonight at Vancity Theatre as part of VIFF's Reel Causes initiative, was made in 1986 and honoured in the late 90s as the best Iranian film of all time by a Persian magazine that polled 150 critics and filmmakers. Initially, it is a little slow-moving by 2012's standards. But once your internet-shortened attention span gets accustomed to the pace, what a riveting and fulfilling experience it is. Bashu draws you relentlessly into its world, especially with the performance of its firebrand of a leading lady.
For the first few minutes comes a long sequence showing the bombing during the Iran-Iraq war that kills Bashu's family and drives the little boy to jump into a truck. We follow the winding path he unwittingly travels into the lives of a farm-woman and her community.
Bashu wakes up in the North, and wanders into a field. Shortly after, he is discovered by Naii and her children. Initially, the strong-willed, mischievous and almost feral mother of two throws clumps of dirt at Bashu to shoo him away. She takes her children home, leaving him in the bushes. But soon she has a change of heart, leaving food and drink outside her door.
Thus begin Naii's and Bashu's struggles, first to understand each other across language barriers, then to affirm their bond and resist the pressure Naii's fellow villagers exert upon her to give up her attachment to the 'little piece of charcoal'. To them, Bashu is nothing but an extra mouth to feed, and worse: he is foreign.
In the face of their rejection Naii now stands as strongly by Bashu's side as she was at first against him, even while the villagers' moral codes vacillate according to their convenience.
Filmmaker Bahran Beizai paints the world of the two nuanced lead characters in often surreal images and against the backdrop of unrelenting group forces. Whenever Bashu feels especially traumatized or alienated the silent ghosts of his family appear, unseen by anyone else.
I was reminded of Golding's universe of children in Lord of the Flies when the younger villagers, a group of little boys, start to take an interest in Bashu. He speaks a funny language, he can read their Persian textbook though he can't speak their dialect, Gilaki, and he turns random objects into drums. But just when one thinks their interest is friendly, it takes a more sinister turn.
Beizai revels in the staged quality of certain scenes in the film. Some of Naii's scenes begin with her striking a pose, apparently photograph-ready, before she continues into action. Rather than taking the audience out of the story, these serve instead to immerse them into Bashu's experienced blend of reality and unreality.
Bezai's film is a funny, heart-wrenching, and sometimes brutal look at how human beings in groups negotiate having outsiders in their midst and accommodate change. But most importantly, it is about finding the strength to defend a bond the characters' immediate world conspires to destroy.
Bashu is evidence that the strongest dramas come out of complex characters pitted against each other in a vividly imagined and honestly depicted world, not special effects or clever language or self-sacrificing but one-dimensional heroics. Much respect to this Iranian gem.
Check out more Reel Causes events at: reelcauses.org.
Gayatri is a philosopher-turned-professional-film-fanatic, with East and West in her DNA, and a travel bug in her boot. Follow her @Gaya3b on Twitter.