Stewart Paints Captors as Victims in Rosewater

Isabel Owens, Lifestyle Editor

Derived from Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me is comedian Jon Stewart’s directorial debut Rosewater, an empirical commentary upon the cultural and intellectual stagnation generated by Middle-East media regimentation. Released on November 14, the political drama recounts Bahari’s 118-day detainment in an Iranian prison.

Born in Tehran but residing in London with his pregnant fiancee, Bahari has no inclination of returning to his native country, especially not in the midst of the tense 2009 Iranian elections. But with encouragement from an associate, Bahari is persuaded to head back to Iran and report upon the political conflict between incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his reformist contender Mir-Hossein Moussavi, both of whose supporters galvanize “huge rallies,” according to a CNN article published at the time.

While accusations of voter fraud were made after Ahmadinejad’s victory in the 2005 presidential election, these assertions were not investigated. When Ahmadinejad is declared triumphant in 2009 with an unlikely majority of votes, civil unrest breaks out.

Iranian police forces work to suppress both peaceful protests and riots, and Bahari, who originally planned only to interview Moussavi and a few citizens before heading back to the safety of London. Armed with a video camera, Bahari attends a riot near his mother’s home, capturing footage to be broadcasted by BBC.

This footage, confiscated by Iranian authorities, along with a sketch on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show in which Bahari is comically declared a spy, attracts the attention of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Bahari is taken to Iran’s notorious Evin prison, wherein the majority of the film focuses on his lengthy confinement and brutal interrogation by a man whom Bahari recognizes only by his scent, rosewater.

Bahari’s New-York Times bestselling novel Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival before seeing Rosewater, is carefully handled by Stewart, offering an ideological view of rebellion in the seemingly inescapable transgression of the time.

Bahari’s internal struggles are expressed during his solitary confinement through a sense of constriction as the camera rarely pans from his face. Much credit for the emotional power of the film is procured by actor Gael Garcia Bernal, whose tortured expressions are haunting.

Those hesitant to see Rosewater in forbearance of the inevitable torture scenes should trust that they are hardly akin to those exposed in the news. While the film is rated R for crude reference and violent action, the gore is limited. Stewart downplays the true physical violence of Bahari’s detainment in favor of psychosis; as the days wear on, the captive becomes more desperate for escape. Conversations with his dead father and sister, as well as victims of political imprisonment are hallucinations brought about by the isolation.

The grim scenes are offset with, surprisingly enough, snippets of humor, found nestled even in the chilling interrogation room. Bahari’s captor is simultaneously clueless and condemning of Western culture.

Rosewater, as Bahari comes to refer to his captor, is portrayed less as a cruel villain and more as a man suffering emotional and intellectual depravity at the hands of a corrupt system in which he still has faith. While it’s difficult to comprehend the heedlessness of human liberty for which Iran’s autocrats are most infamous, Rosewater explores the prospect that they too are victims of the very ordinance to which they owe their power.

Rosewater has been commended by The Daily Beast for “attempting to highlight a horrific problem in a difficult part of the world,” and praised by Variety for its “willingness to flesh out characters on both sides of the political divide.”

Rosewater examines the possibility of progress in a nation where any extraneous media-based campaigning is dangerous.