The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart found his first film project in an unusual way. Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari was imprisoned shortly after the 2009 Iranian elections, and when in prison had been shown a clip of himself on the satirical news show, The Daily Show, as evidence that he was a spy. Stewart has stated he felt guilt over this, and after Bahari released his book (‘Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and survival’), Rosewater came from there.
London-based Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal) returns home to Iran in 2009 to cover the country’s election; one in which the leading opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, was thought to have a real chance at beating incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When the polling stations shut early and victory is called for Ahmadinejad, the people are angered. Bahari captures footage of marches, protests and the unfolding situation.
Bahari is woken early in his mother’s home and is taken by Revolutionary Guard police to Evin Prison, where he is charged as being a spy. His Daily Show “interview” is used as evidence to support the accusation, though it is implied that it is his footage of the post-election violence that is the real reason he is there. He is held for an extended period and interrogated, tortured by a man (played by Kim Bodnia) whose job it is to get him to apologise for spreading lies and admit that he is in fact, a spy.
Rosewater is a timely and relevant film. Journalists are being imprisoned around the world on a regular basis for the crime of reporting truth and doing their job. One thing Rosewater does do well, is shine a brief light on the impact of those caught it the crossfire of such an arrest. Iranians who spoke to him and gave him an insight into the opposition are also arrested, but unlike him, they don’t have a campaign from the West trying to get them out. They are the civilian collateral in a government’s war against the truth.
Stewart’s directorial début has good material to work with, but for the most part he doesn’t get the most out of it. The film’s first section (leading up to Bahari’s arrest) is vibrant and energetic, showing us a street-level look at the election and fallout. In particular, there’s some interesting photography used to illustrate Bahari’s recalling of memories. However once Bahari is imprisoned, the film itself becomes stagnant. It never really conveys the pain and frustration Bahari must have felt and it fails to emphasise the repetitive, yet utterly idle nature of prison life. As a viewer I became disinterested, and I felt my sympathy for Bahari slip away.
A large part of my disinterest with the film (both before and after imprisonment) is due to Stewart’s decision to have everyone in the film speak English practically all of the time. I understand that Bahari is Canadian-Iranian, but this doesn’t explain why he would speak to people in the street in English, or his own [Iranian] mother in English. It makes no sense that all the prison interrogations would be conducted in English either. The fact that they are, leads to dissociation from the story that Stewart is trying to tell. Kim Bodnia’s delivery is comical, his accent jesting and full of mirth. While this may be the intention at times, it takes away from the gravity of the situation. Gael García Bernal is good in this role, but an actor who speaks Persian would have been better.
For a film of only 103 minutes, Rosewater feels long. I wouldn’t mind if it felt long because I was trapped in a prison cell with the protagonist, but it’s not because of that. It feels long because there is a lack of emotion in the film. You know you should be feeling something, but you aren’t. There’s a fascinating story here, but I suspect you might get far more out of it from reading the book.
By Sam McCosh
Director: Jon Stewart
Writer(s): Jon Stewart (screenplay), Maziar Bahari & Aimee Molloy (book)
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Dimitri Leonidas, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Golshifteh Farahani
Runtime: 103 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: February 19 2015