Bahrām Beyzai

Bahrām Beyzai (born 26 December 1938) is an Iranian playwright, screenwriter, theatre director, researcher and filmmaker. Beyzaie has acquired a lofty and unreachable status in Iranian art history and it’s hard to imagine Iranian theatre and film without him. He’s a creative and selective filmmaker with several outstanding short and feature films in his career, but the word “filmmaker” fails to describe the grandeur of his work. It’s more appropriate to describe him as: undoubtedly one of the greatest living Iranian intellectuals, if not the greatest one.

Despite being one of the most prominent figures in the history of Iranian theatre, Bahram Beyzaie never tried to film a live theatre performance. To him, cinema wasn’t just a medium to record theatrics, but an art form with inherently different standards, customs and aesthetic sensibilities. In this aspect, he is similar to three filmmaking giants: Orson Welles, Max Ophüls and Kenji Mizoguchi. These filmmakers all adored theatre, but meanwhile brought innovations to cinema that no other filmmaker managed to equal. Beyzaie’s prowess and understanding of cinematic techniques are clear from his very first film “Downpour” (1971). His camera moves with a dazzling rhythm like the actors in the film and creates exquisite cinematographic compositions with its subjects. Beyzaie’s films are by no means a reflection of his stage-plays and theatrical endeavors, but a continuation of them in an alternate universe. A universe in which depth of field, framing, traveling, close-ups and Mise-en-scènes exist. In his own words, Beyzaie enjoys cinema “because in the darkness of a movie theatre, everybody is equal.”

Video excerpt taken from “Downpour” (1971)

Historical and mythical themes are recurring in Beyzaie’s cinematic and theatrical careers. In three films, “The Stranger and the Fog” (1974), “The Ballad of Tara” (1979) & “Death of Yazdgerd” (1982) he specifically explores historical periods and keeps overtly or covertly alluding to them in his future films. “Death of Yazdgerd” might be the standout in his periods pieces. In here, much like the rest of his period pieces, he doesn’t regard history as a fixed set of data, but a dynamic foundation that can shift depending on the perspective of each narrator. The movies depicts the death of Yazdgerd III, the last emperor of the Sasanian empire in Persia, in a mil by a murderer who remains unknown until the end. Members of the miller family offer their own accounts of the king’s death to the judges, and with drama, theatrics and masterful storytelling, they succeed in shaping history from the ground up, which is incidentally what Beyzaie ends up doing in the film. The story takes place in a metaphorical ‘ground zero’ of history; where the incumbent king is dead and the next in line has yet to claim the throne. A moment where an empire has been dissolved, as the next one prepares to take power. It is in this inaugural and celestial moment that Beyzaie lays the groundwork for history, but with stories from the common folk; stories that could very well rival those of kings and the powerful.

Video excerpt taken from “Death of Yazdgerd” (1982)

In Beyzaie’s cinematic and theatrical work, we are often introduced to a ‘stranger’ or ‘traveller’ character. A character that arrives in the story from somewhere else and manages to guide the story somewhere else with them. These strangers are divided into two categories in Beyzaie’s work: the strangers that are ridiculed, tortured or killed by society, and the stranger that are accepted by society after enduring great suffering. “Bashu, The Little Stranger” (1989) falls into the second category. Much like Beyzaie’s other works, in “Bashu”, the stranger is initially accepted by just one person: a woman. A woman who solely decides to do everything in her power to save the stranger. “Bashu, The Little Stranger” also embodies another one of Beyzaie’s favorite motifs: black characters. In ancient theatrical traditions, a black (afro-iranian) character is a symbol of the common folk. In “Bashu”, the common folk are the war-torn strangers and only a mother can save them: mother earth.

Video excerpt taken from “Bashu, The Little Stranger” (1989)

Beyzaie never thinks about theatrics and acting in his works. In fact, he takes it a step further and plays with the idea of ‘playing’. His characters often realize they are acting for themselves while they’re acting for others and are not able to distinguish themselves from the roles they play. In the never-made script of “Truths About Leila, Daughter of Edris” (1976), the protagonist is an impoverished girl named Leila, who doesn’t own any identification and has no choice but to live with a prostitute called Azam. In typical Beyzaie fashion, she doubts her identity by the end and doesn’t know whether she’s Leila or Azam. Existentialism and identity crises occupy a great portion of Beyzaie’s world. In “Maybe Some Other Time” (1988), this identity crisis is presented in a complex and creative premise: the male character sees an image of his wife with another man, but learns she is his wife’s twin sister by the end.

Filmstills from “Maybe Some Other Time” (1988), © CIC

No filmmaker is probably as progressive as Beyzaie when it comes to depicting women in Iranian cinema. Though his women are usually fighting to save or reach a man, they always carry out their fight on their own and without any man’s help. The female protagonist in “Mad Dog Killing” (2001) is the most notable in this aspect. The women of Beyzaie’s world are not only progressive and independent in the story, but also figuratively. Sousan Taslimi in “Bashu, The Little Stranger” equals the screen-presence of archetypical western heroes as she roams about the massive spaces in the film and fills every bit of the frame. Such self-asserted, defiant women were unprecedented in Iranian cinema during the 80’s. Beyzaie’s perspective on woman, though partially influenced by modern feminist works and ideas, is most indicative of his unique understanding of myths and mythical fables. Women are mothers in his cinema. Not mothers of any particular person, but mother nature.

Video excerpt taken from “Mad Dog Killing” (2001)

Beyzaie’s films are complex arrangements of various rituals that guide the story one way or the other. Rituals turn into stories and stories into rituals. That’s why even in his non-period pieces, Beyzaie’s stories always take place in an otherworldly time-space, in which anything can take on magical properties, whether it’s a sword or a mirror. Beyzaie has no interest in depicting rituals as they are; He finds joy in playing around with them. This manipulation of rituals is most evident in “Travellers” (1992). Beyzaie himself has confirmed that one of the reasons behind making the film was his curiosity as to how a wedding ceremony could fuse with a mourning ritual. Such metamorphosis of traditions is only available in Bahram Beyzaie’s cinema.

Video excerpt taken from “Travellers” (1992)