Cast: Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodina, Dimitri Leodinas, Haluk Bilginer, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Golshifteh Farahani, Claire Foy, Amir El-Masry
Director: Jon Stewart
Writer: Jon Stewart
I am a big fan of Jon Stewart and was strongly anticipating his directorial debut. It is a large leap for the host of a satirical news program to take the helm of a serious political drama and I was both curious and excited to see whether he would rise to the occasion. Rosewater is based on Maziar Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me and recounts the 118 days that Bahari spent in an Iranian prison following the 2009 Iranian election. It was an event that caused massive public outrage on a global scale and led to an internationally widespread appeal for Bahari to be released. A film based on an issue as heated as this was bound to receive some backlash, and so it did when the Iranian government spoke out in condemnation of the film. Nevertheless Stewart rose to the challenge and ended up making an enthralling film about hope, survival, and freedom.
The film centres on Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal), an Iranian-born London-based journalist who is sent to Iran to cover the 2009 presidential election. He recalls the turbulent history that he already shares with this country as he remembers his father, an outspoken Communist who was imprisoned by the Shah’s regime and who prided himself on having not spoken a single word in there, and also his late-sister, a revolutionary activist who was imprisoned under the government of Ayatollah Khomeini. In Iran he ventures onto the streets to get a sense of the political climate and learns that there is a strong desire for change. The protestors that he meets reveal that they’ve had enough of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s corrupt administration and plan to use their votes to swear in the opposing reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. It is during this time that Bahari takes part in a mock-interview for The Daily Show in which the comedian Jason Jones poses as an American spy.
Whatever hope there was for Iranian reform is crushed when the presumably rigged election results reveal that Ahmadinejad has won a landslide victory. The public outrage is enormous and leads to demonstrations and riots on the streets. Bahari stays behind to report on these protests and ends up capturing footage of the Iranian military open firing on civilians. He implores the BBC to use the footage even though it will make him a target. It isn’t long afterwards until the Iranian police knock on his door. Bahari is arrested and is taken to Evin Prison in which he will spend the next four months. There he is accused of treason and espionage based on evidence that includes his Daily Show interview. He is then subject to the brutal torture of his interrogator (Kim Bodina), a man to whom the blindfolded Bahari assigns the nickname ‘Rosewater’ due to his distinctive cologne.
Bernal’s central performance is the driving force of this film. The turmoil he portrays as Bahari is compelling and his struggle throughout the film is engaging. He has been accused of a crime that he did not commit, he has been led to believe that his loved ones have abandoned him, and he is subject to brutal beatings and vicious slander at the hands of ‘Rosewater’. ‘Rosewater’ has one task which is to take away Bahari’s hope in order to extract a confession out of him. It is not clear whether he even believes the allegations of which he has accused Bahari of committing, but what is clear is his dedication to his country and to the orders that he has been given. The only other companions that Bahari has throughout these 118 days are the ethereal figures of his father, who urges him to stay silent and not to give them any sort of confession (even though there is nothing to confess), and his sister, who encourages him to not give up hope. Keeping his hopes up proves difficult as the physical and emotional duress Bahari undergoes becomes more and more unbearable. His mental state constantly jumps between confusion, despair, anger, stubbornness, hopefulness, and resignation.
Stewart has managed to make a film that is harrowing, captivating, and that even manages to be humourous. The absurdity of the police’s questions and demands when they come to arrest Bahari and the jokes that Bahari pulls in defiance of his interrogator provide comic highlights throughout the film without diminishing the drama or the tension. On the whole Rosewater tells an inspiring story about the power of hope in the face of adversity. When Bahari’s role as a journalist is brought into question, he fights admirably for the freedom of the press. He holds that the freedom to express oneself and the freedom to tell the truth are precious and sacred and that they cannot be suppressed. This is the information age and there is nothing in the world more powerful than information. Rosewater is a worthy debut for Jon Stewart and I hope he will go on to make more films.