A summary of the story
A young boy and his father run across a highway and cut a hole in the wire fence separating them from a truck stop, where they sneak up under a truck which is just about to drive off. The driver unknowingly transports them to a new country, and they end up at a cargo port, where they try to recove r from the trip and get ready for the challenge ahead: to get to the nearest refugee center, and be accepted as refugees. On the way to the center, they travel on the subway, and when the ticket controllers enter at the next station, the father makes a fast decision and quickly leaves the train. Not knowing that his father has left, the son continues on the train, and ultimately realizes that he is alone. He drifts around the streets of the unfamiliar city, while his dad is taken in for questioning by the authorities. When the father is finally transported to the refugee camp, the son is already there, and the father glimpses him in the hallway, smiling, and playing with a new found friend. When the father is escorted to a car by the police, he does not call out to his son, who sees him nevertheless and runs after him. As the car with the father is about to leave, the son catches up with it, and pounds desperately on the windows. The father looks at his son standing outside the car, but when the policemen ask if he knows the kid, his answer is no. The car drives off, and the son desperately runs after it, this time not catching up with it, and soon, we see him standing completely alone on the road, watching the car drive away. On the ground he finds his father's hat, and in it a soccer card with his football hero, Zidane. At the cargo port, the father had refused to let him keep just that, because they had to get rid of all personal belongings, in order not to risk being sent back.
The urge to tell
Bawke means father, and this is an intense story of a father who faces an impossible decision. Inevitably he has to leave his son in the end, in order for the son to have any chance of staying in the country they have fled to. The loss is double: the father loses his son, and the son loses his father, but the father has a choice, which is the pivot Bawke revolves around. A tough decision that sometimes accompanies fatherhood. To make decisions that go beyond immediate results and extend into the future. The future would hardly exist for this boy, should the father choose to recognize him at the end, so he doesn't, and instead makes what is probably the hardest decision of his life: to leave his son in a strange country, probably never to seem him again. Should the father show any sign of recognition, the authorities in the refugee camp would know the son had a father to escort him back to his homeland, and protect him, leaving his status as a refugee in a completely different light. A story like this probably occurs every day across the world, but is rarely told. Thanks to films like Bawke, refugees now have a face and a story; they are no longer just numbers in a statistic about border controls, or elements in a political campaign.
Bawke is intense and authentic; a simple story that has a deep and long-lasting impact. Perhaps the writer/director Hisham Zaman, has been on the same journey, or perhaps the story has been told to him, but most certainly, he felt a need to tell it again. This is the need, the urge, that is present at every moment during the film's 15 minutes. Bawke is not contrived, or at least the viewer does not sense anything of that sort, just a steady and intense forward motion towards a heartbreaking end. This urge to tell is reflected as much in the story as it is in the acting, and together with the other elements of storytelling, everything merges to form a beautiful narrative of loss, while at the same time providing a rare insight into the hard life which so many refugees lead.
In a well told story, we often expect to witness the most important decision the main character has ever made in his life, and Bawke revolves around exactly that: the father's decision to leave the son. The film's tight structure leads us straight and intensely to its heartbreaking climax, without ever leaving us puzzled, since near the start we are given a sense of the story's direction and the goal of its characters. Bad storytelling, both short and feature length, often starts by failing to clarify what kind of story we are about to be told.
Bawke opens very effectively, and just 12 seconds in, we see the father and son, peeking nervously at the trucks. Although we don't know their exact plan at that moment, it quickly becomes clear. Within the first minute, the father cuts a hole in the fence that separates them from the truck stop, and this is in reality what the plot is about, a father and son trying to break into, not a truck stop, but a better life in a new country. Less than 60 seconds into the film, Bawke has clarified the plot and introduced us to the two main characters and their goal. Even the fact that they are father and son fleeing their own country, must imply that there is no longer a mother, and this past makes the story that much more intense from the beginning.
The rest of the movie is built around three main scenes, all showing the father trying to leave his son, only to succeed in the end.
The first of these three scenes takes place at the cargo port, and is essentially what some screenwriters would call "the symbolic scene". The symbolic scene often foreshadows the ending at an early point in the story, before the main character, in this case the father, has fully realized his own destiny. Although this scene starts out with the father saying "now go" to the son, the strong willed boy makes the father back down and he stays with the boy a little while longer. The father explains to his son that "they", the authorities, will more easily take him, since he is a kid, but the son obviously doesn't want to lose his father, and insists on them staying together. The father agrees, but on condition that the son get rid of the soccer cards. After the son's initial refusal, the father starts to walk away, obviously knowing that the kid will immediately run after him. Shortly after, the son yells out Bawke (father) after him, providing an early "title closure" (explaining and connecting with the film's title). If anyone should have missed the exact word in this scene, it definitely becomes evident in the end, as the young boy yells out Bawke again while hammering on the car window, trying to get his father to change his mind about leaving. When the son catches up with his father at the cargo port, he angrily throws the cards into the air, demonstrating that he doesn't intend to keep them anymore. However, one of them falls to the ground, and the father ends up keeping this one. In the end, this is the card the father leaves for his son on the road, so this thing that almost separated them in the beginning of the story, now ends up linking them together in memory.
A little later, at the subway station, the son suddenly goes missing, and the handheld camera captures the father's desperation in the little more than 30 seconds that pass before he finds the son again, this time onboard one of the subway trains. The intensity of the scene demonstrates that the father doesn't want to just lose his son somewhere in this new country, but wants to be absolutely certain that the son is placed in good hands when they inevitably part.
After this quick scare, Bawke provides the viewer with it's one brief moment of harmony, when the boy sees a girl his own age, and she looks at him, and shortly after goes to the front window, inviting him to join her with yet another look. The son goes up to her, and when the father sees his son easily starting to interact with the girl, he relaxes for the first and only time in the story. He exchanges a glance with the girl's mother, a subtle smile, and it almost appears that he realizes the son is able to stand on his own in this new country. The father stays in his seat, while the son sits at the front of the train, looking out the window, with the girl standing next to him. This placing of the father and son almost becomes a metaphor; while the father remains in the middle of the train, the son moves up to the front, which is made of glass, almost as though he was looking ahead, staring at a new future - into which his father cannot accompany him.
As the ticket controllers appear, leaving the train becomes a necessity for the father, as he knows that he and his son will otherwise quickly will be connected as the only ones on board who don't have passports or papers of any kind. He makes a quick decision and steps off the train, leaving his son behind.
The third time, at the refugee center, the father is faced yet again with the decision to leave his son.
Although one could argue that he already left his son on the subway, that was a choice he was forced to make under great pressure and very quickly. When he sees his son in the refugee center, he has plenty of time to call out to him, and to reconsider the rushed decision of leaving him. However, this final time, the father carries through with the decision, and even after he has had a chance to think again, in the car, he doesn't back down as he had done at the cargo port.
When they fought over the Zidane soccer card, the father yelled "here you will have the chance to become like him". While the dad doesn't necessarily want his son to become a soccer star, by saying "become like him", he essentially means that in this country where they have finally arrived, anything is possible, even wild dreams of sports stardom. In the end, when the son finds his father's hat and the soccer card on the ground, the sentence "become like him" is repeated without being spoken. In his hands, the son holds a piece of the his own past, the father's hat, and also the soccer card, which now symbolizes the father's hope for his son's future.
Apart from the symbolism, there is also a strong emotional impact in the ending. Most people have something that used to belong to their father or mother, and this mere fact makes the object priceless. After they are long gone, it will always function as a portal into a special moment or a childhood memory. For the boy in Bawke, he will most certainly cherish and hold on to both his father's hat and the soccer card for the rest of his life, always remembering that final moment of utter loss and distress. And although the father's decision to part from his son is exceptionally tough, it is also a decision that will probably free him from an uncertain fate as a constant refugee. This final decision makes Bawke a universal story of a parent's role and responsibility, and the burden to carry out hard decisions in order to lead sons and daughters into a better life, even at the expense of his or her own life.
The director and writer of the film, Hisham Zaman, could easily have depicted other characters along their journey, such as the police officer that interrogates the father, or people at the refugee center. Instead, a choice has clearly been made to minimize all other characters as much a possible, to focus as much as possible on the father and son. They have little interaction with other people throughout the story, because they essentially have only themselves in this new country; their solitude is emphasized by this fact and in hindsight you realize that any interaction with other people along the way would have been a digression. This is a choice that was undoubtedly already made in the writing process, but was carried through and enhanced in the film's visual qualities.
The film is very well constructed visually, and there is the constant sense of very deliberate visual choices made to fit the story perfectly.
The introduction of the father and son makes use of the film's first close-up, just 12 seconds in. The handheld camera in the opening scene underlines the tension and fear the father and son must be feeling while breaking into the truck stop and setting out on their dangerous journey. From this point on, the whole scene underneath the truck has no master shots, which would have probably relieved the tension slightly, only close-ups of father and son, broken up by their p.o.v., showing nothing but short clips of freeway underneath them. This is an intense journey, and only when it's over does Bawke supply its viewers with a master shot of the father and son standing at the cargo port; there is a very brief moment for the two of them to relax, before the father tries to part with his son for the first time, and fails.
As they set out on their journey to the police station, and finally to the refugee camp, the camera starts to observe them with different eyes; something is almost always in the way of the camera, preventing an unhindered view. This is done for a number of reasons, but one is to create more tension in the images, a less calm visual style, more confused and more authentic. In many cases, it appears as though it has been shot with a telephoto lens from afar, so that during the shooting, the father and son might actually have been walking around, asking people for directions, without these people ever knowing they were part of a film. Furthermore it adds to the film's authenticity, since this is how an unknowing observer would usually see refugees - from a distance, with something in the way of a clear sight. The camera looks upon them with an estranged view, because they are strangers in new country. A new country which is quickly established as scary and different from the world they come from. Right after their initial confrontation at the cargo port, the father and son are seen in another telephoto lens shot, trying to cross a freeway, obviously a frightening experience for both of them. The tele shot makes it possible to have cars passing by in the foreground, out of focus, while the father and son are in focus, standing on the opposite side of the road from where the camera has been placed.
At the police station, we are never inside of the room but instead are left outside, looking in, from a distance, with only the father partially visible in the door opening, and only shadows and voices of the interpreter and other policemen. This seems to be a very deliberate visual choice, to introduce as few new faces as possible throughout the story, so that the face of the father and son appear that much more powerful. Bawke's sparing use of close-ups is reduced to the most essential, and therefore also becomes much more effective. Considering that they have played a substantial part in the story, neither the ticket control people nor the policemen are ever shown in close-ups. Only at the very end, when the father is sitting in the car and has to deny knowing his son, do we get a close-up of the police officer driving the car. This close-up becomes slightly ambiguous, since the policeman's last glance at the father could imply that he knows what's going on; that the boy knocking on the window could be this strange man's son. Perhaps the policeman knows and chooses not to act on it, since he probably also knows what will happen to the boy if he does. Whether he knows or not, these final close-ups, just before the car drives off, provide a moment of great tension before the final separation.
The last master shot shows the boy standing alone in the snow- covered landscape, looking over his shoulder, back at the refugee center, and then looking forward, toward the road on which the police car carrying the father has just driven by. It becomes a visualization of his past and present. The refugee center, representing his future, and further down the road, his past is slowly driving away, leaving him alone to face a whole new life. After the loss of his father, he is now left alone to take charge of his own life, with a new set of challenges and choices.
As he is standing in the middle of the frame in this final master shot, the credits start rolling, and 20 seconds later, there is a fade to black. After the credit roll, a text reads:
"To all those leaving their native countries, and their roots and language in search for a better life."
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