US TV’s Jon Stewart’s directorial debut Rosewater is a political satire set in Iran in 2009, focusing on the absurd interrogation of a journalist imprisoned for his coverage of the disputed presidential elections.
Revolutionary Roadby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Satirist and political commentator Jon Stewart may be giving up his hugely successful The Daily Show on US television, but if he’s decided to turn his hand to filmmaking we may be seeing more of his work on the big screen from now on. He has made a clever and comic debut as director and co-screenwriter with Rosewater, which fleshes out a true story he had followed through his TV show. In 2009, a correspondent for Stewart’s show, went to Tehran and interviewed Newsweek writer Iranian-Canadian Maziar Bahari as part of a jokey segment about America’s fraught relationship with Iran. A week later, Bahari was arrested.
In Rosewater, based on these real events, Gael Garcia Bernal stars as London-based Bahari, returning to his native Iran, staying with his family there, to cover the disputed 2009 election between incumbent President Ahmadinejad and challenger Mousavi. Arriving there, young Davood (Dimitri Leonidas) offers him a taxi ride from the airport and introductions to his dissident friends. In the film, after uploading footage of the police shooting civilians in post-election demonstrations, Bahari is arrested by the Revolutionary Guard, tortured and imprisoned in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin prison.
For 118 days, he is interrogated (in English) by ‘Rosewater’, so named because of his pervading cologne (burly Kim Bodnia, from Danish TV’s The Bridge). For Rosewater, the interrogation has to be successful for him to hold on to his job. Sexually repressed, he sees porn in everything, even the most innocuous DVDs confiscated from Bahari. The daily confrontation of the two men in Bahari’s cell veers between absurd and menacing. The humour of the comedy show on US television has signally failed to transcend cultural boundaries, and Bahari is told by his interrogator that the TV skit proves he is an American spy. So now, to save the regime’s face in the international media, ‘Rosewater’ must make Bahari confess to spying, so he uses every means possible – psychological torture and beatings. Over time, a serio-comic, almost co-dependent, relationship develops between the two men.
In his cell, Bahari has hallucinations and flashbacks of his dead father and sister, both former political prisoners there. His father was arrested by the Shah for being a communist and his sister was killed for her beliefs. Is he brave enough to live up to the ideals they died for? Bahari developes his own way of surviving – he invents ridiculous answers that are as crazy as the questions Rosewater asks him, and this creates scenes of black humour. Once he is able to laugh at the absurdity of it all, he’s won. In their two-hander which dominates the film, Bernal’s Bahari seems naïve and passive; Bodnia’s Rosewater is a mere functionary. Unfortunately, over the course of the film, the interrogations become repetitive and it is hard to maintain suspense when the outcome– that Bahari will be released in the end – is already known and, when the end comes, it comes suddenly and abruptly.
Though the film is implicity farcical, it uses news footage and its outdoor scenes are shot with handheld cameras to give it a newsy slant. But the leading actors – no matter how good their performance – are not convincingly Iranian, which detracts from the current affairs feel. All told, it’s a well made, worthy film that doesn’t quite hit the mark it set for itself. Rosewater lauds the importance of the freedom of the press. The other side of the coin is the power of the media. Uncensored reporting put Bahari in prison in a dictatorship but the international publicity the media was able to generate – which he was oblivious to while incarcerated – was also instrumental in obtaining his eventual release back to his pregnant wife in London. Those in Iran who helped Bahari were not so lucky.
Rosewater is released on 8th May 2015 in the UK