After violent protests broke out after irregularities in the 2009 Iranian election, journalist Maziar Bahari faced a choice: risk his life and career by videotaping totalitarian abuse, or drop his camera and run. He chose to release the footage. When I first heard the premise of Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, I couldn’t think of a more compelling personality to deftly negotiate its weighty subject material with a sense of scope and a light, often comedic, touch. Based on Then They Came for Me, Bahari’s memoir on his 118-day imprisonment in notorious Evin Prison, what elevates Rosewater isn’t strict adherence to documenting past events, but its ability to capture the essence of one man’s experience and expand it beyond its physical and temporal boundaries. Bahari himself has explained that though the film is not true to the letter of his experience in Evin, it captures a higher truth of imprisonment. This crafted, whittled-down truth drives Rosewater in way that only fiction can.
Cutting frequently between actual news footage and dramatic re-enactment throughout, Rosewater unpacks the realness of its subject material, which is often a difficult line to toe on events still tinged by recent memory. Go too far, and it feels like a fictionalised fabula manipulated to suit an ideological end. Fall short, and the film loses its spark. When asked about balancing this, Stewart explains that, “you want people to feel the reality of the absurdity of these Kafkaesque kind of regimes,” rather than heightening them in a Dr. Strangelove kind of way. Its fluid themes and fresh visual motifs pave the way for a much more poignant commentary on freedom of speech in a globalised context. I am befuddled by other reviewers’ comments that Rosewater is a departure from Stewart’s work on The Daily Show and its more satirical material. Yes, the film is a realistic depiction of journalistic freedom in Iran and markedly not a comedy (despite being extremely funny at times), but it salutes the freedom of press that allows a satirical news program to exist at all.
The first act’s optimistic mood beautifully articulates the essence of democratic hope, as Bahari (Gael García Bernal) reports on Iran’s 10th presidential election between conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and independent reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi. With sweeping shots of Iranians showing off their inky fingertips as a mark of their democratic freedom, Rosewater captures a visceral sense of this freedom and it is electric. During his time in Iran, he is chauffeured through the “real Iran” by taxi-driver Davood (Dimitri Leonidas). He meets other Iranians who illegally attend “dish university” by watching bootlegged global media on dozens of secret satellite dishes. When violence finally does break out after accusations of election rigging, Davood chastises Bahari for failing to record and report the violence. “You have a real weapon and you choose not to use it.” Along with his experiences of the very real risks that Iranians take for free information, this exchange motivates Bahari to endanger himself for the sake of reporting reality and making information free.
Upon his indictment and arrest, however, the tone of the film shifts dramatically. Imprisoned and under constant observation and psychological duress from his interrogator (nicknamed Rosewater for the smell of his aftershave), Bahari’s mental state begins to deteriorate. In one instance, an interview he appeared on for Stewart’s own Daily Show becomes evidence against him. His isolation and resulting emotional turmoil becomes tangible through conversations with his imagined father, who was also imprisoned under charges of communism. They compare their experiences, his father scoffing at the absence of physical abuse and how easily he folds under their threats. After gruelling interrogation after interrogation, Bahari’s mental liberation results from a single realisation: those who prosecute him live in fear and without freedom. He rediscovers hope. Humour bolsters his resolve until international pressure for his release erodes Evin’s bleak walls. Not all prisoners, however, are lucky enough to channel this international clout. Davood and others remain incarcerated, with little more than hope for their release.
As Stewart’s directorial debut, Rosewater is not without a few hiccups. The sequences that visualise the #hashtagnews revolution appear more suited to a politically-charged viral video, and seem at odds with the film’s rich and detailed realism. Cheesy montages aside, the media’s role in political change unfolds in an otherwise compelling manner. Mahari’s darkest moments occur in desperate isolation from the rest of the world, but the outcry of global media symbolises solidarity and hope and eventually leads to his release. Self-congratulatory, perhaps, but rousing nonetheless.
Furthermore, his interrogator (Kim Bodina) would have benefitted from more nuanced characterisation. An interesting subplot develops between his antagonistic supervisor, revealing Rosewater’s ultimate powerlessness within the authoritarian system. Had this been more developed, Bahari’s interrogations could have earned another layer of subtext.
Rosewater is a profoundly poignant account of one journalist’s struggle that speaks for so much more. Fuelled by remarkable performances (Bernal’s work is nothing short of heartbreaking) and truly adroit manipulation of tone, the film negotiates extremely complicated geo-political tensions while alternating between whimsy and crushing hopelessness. Entertaining throughout and emotionally engaging, Rosewater won’t topple authoritarian regimes in and of itself, but it celebrates the human spirit that can.