A version of this review originally appeared on Right Now.
In mid-February, Jon Stewart hinted at restlessness in announcing that he was leaving the satirical news programme The Daily Show after 16 years as its host. His desire to pursue other projects was perhaps whetted by his screenwriting and directorial debut, Rosewater, which he took time off hosting to make in 2013.
The feature-length film, which was recently screened in Brisbane by the Queensland Committee for Oxfam Australia, is based on the memoir of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari. Days before Iran’s presidential election in 2009, Bahari did a satirical interview with The Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones, who pretended to be an American spy. Ironically, footage of The Daily Show segment was ludicrously used as proof that Bahari was a spy for the West; he was wrongfully arrested in Tehran four days after the episode aired and would spend the next four months in solitary confinement.
Stewart’s film is a moving exploration of endurance, the value of freedom of expression, and the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of the capricious forces that can so swiftly remove one’s liberties. To whatever extent it was inspired by a sense of culpability for Bahari’s arrest, Rosewater is also driven by Stewart’s interest in what he calls ‘the absurdity of totalitarian regimes’.
The film centres on the events surrounding Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election, which triggered nationwide protests that persisted for seven months after his supposed landslide victory in June 2009. Stewart conveys the public furore with a documentarian’s eye; historical footage of demonstrations and international news reports are interspersed between filmed scenes of protestors chanting, ‘We want freedom!’ Scenes in which Twitter hashtags are digitally superimposed and spread over buildings accurately capture the zeitgeist of the protests, in which social media played a crucial role as it later would during the Arab Spring.
Following his arrest, Bahari – played by the excellent Gael García Bernal – who was at the time a reporter for American weekly news magazine Newsweek, is repeatedly questioned, beaten, and made to give false confessions, often while blindfolded. He comes to recognise his interrogator – played by Danish actor Kim Bodnia – by the rosewater fragrance the man wears. The film presents a toned-down version of the torture and violence the real-life Bahari experienced, which is an astute choice on Stewart’s part; screening the true extent of the brutality experienced would take the film into darker and more despondent territory, contravening its largely hopeful tone as well as dissuading viewers of a squeamish nature.
Stewart injects much humour and levity into the film despite the grimness of Bahari’s imprisonment. The cultural ignorance of the interrogator, dubbed ‘Rosewater’, forms the basis for several surprisingly uproarious moments. During one interrogation session, Rosewater demands emphatically, ‘Where is Anton Chekhov?’ Bahari, bemused, tries to ascertain whether he is talking about the Russian playwright. The interrogator’s response exposes equal confusion: ‘‘It is you who have listed him as an interest on Facebook!’ he exclaims.
The accusations leveled against Bahari are often ludicrous to the point of hilarity; he is exhorted to confess that he is a spy for “CIA, MI6, [Jewish intelligence agency] Mossad and Newsweek…the media arm for CIA”. (In another twist of irony that brings the arc full circle, Stewart has been accused on Iranian state television of being aided by the CIA for his work on the film.)
The interrogator’s paranoia, however, is a hangover of justifiable suspicion, which American films often conveniently overlook. Not Stewart’s though; the interrogator brings up the CIA’s role in orchestrating the 1953 Iranian coup d’état that ousted the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. By its own admission, which only came in 2013, the CIA systematically bribed Iranian politicians and army officials in order to overthrow Mossadegh, and did so ‘as an act of US foreign policy’. In this context, Rosewater’s accusations, though no less ridiculous, are perhaps more understandable. ‘We kicked America out of the door,’ he says, ‘and you will bring them back through the window.’
Given its underlying criticism of previous American foreign policy, it is perhaps too much to expect the film’s main language to be Farsi. The majority of the film’s audience, after all, are likely to be Americans, who — if the history of American-produced foreign shows is anything to go by — balk even at the idea of British-accented English let alone subtitled foreign languages. The Iranians in Rosewater are relegated to uttering occasional Farsi words for greetings or emphasis. Fortunately, authenticity is not a prerequisite for sincerity.
What makes Rosewater so poignant is the countless others who are currently experiencing the unjust and wrongful treatment that Bahari underwent. Upon being released from prison, the character reflects: ‘My joy is tempered by those I left behind. People that did not have the advantage of international attention. Countrymen and women whose only crime against the state is not believing in its perfection.’
It is a sentiment that rings particularly true in the case of the recent release of Australian journalist, Peter Greste, whose two former co-prisoners are currently awaiting retrial in Egypt. While Baher Mohammed, an Al-Jazeera producer, may have benefited from the international spotlight directed toward his fellow journalists, unlike Greste and Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy he has no foreign citizenship as recourse to guarantee his freedom and deportation. Although Peter Greste and Maziar Bahari have found freedom, the struggle continues.
Dir. Jon Stewart