After Jon Stewart announced his much publicized departure from The Daily Show, many began to speculate what he would do next. The possibilities are endless, and if the potential he shows as a first-time filmmaker with Rosewater (2014) is any indication, he would make a fine director.
Rosewater isn’t a great film, but it’s a necessary one that’s been made with passion and care, and it deserves a wider audience. It proves that sometimes the significance of a film’s content can compensate for any formal inadequacies. The structure and style of the film isn’t innovative, but the true story of a wrongfully imprisoned journalist is important, and Stewart simultaneously offers an insightful history lesson and a crucial call to action.
Gael García Bernal plays Maziar Bahari, a Tehran-born, London-based journalist who is falsely accused of espionage by the Iranian government and spends 118 days in prison. The film opens with the controversial 2009 president election and the subsequent riots that ensue, and immediately we see that Bahari is absurdly arrested for merely reporting these events. The majority of the film focuses on Bahari’s detainment, in which he is blindfolded and tortured. The title derives from the scent of the interrogator, which Bahari describes as the only distinguishing feature of the man who brutalized him.
The movie, which is adapted from Bahari’s book Then They Came For Me, clearly demonstrates that Bahari lived to tell his story, but that doesn’t negate the damage that’s been done, nor does it minimize the severity of the situation. After the film’s conclusion, in which Bahari returns to London after international pressure for his release, Stewart reminds us that there are thousands of other journalists unjustly imprisoned throughout the world whose stories remain unheard. This is a bittersweet moment, as it conveys the strength of the human spirit and the power of the people to effectively mobilize, as well as the unchecked power of governments that deny its citizens basic liberties. We’ve come a long way in the fight for human rights, but there’s a sense that the world is still incredibly conservative, and the vast majority of governments continue to oppress political dissidents.
There’s no doubt that Stewart made this film for an American audience, most likely the same group of young progressives that watch his television program. This is important to note, especially at a time when the Obama administration is under scrutiny for its aggressive use of the Espionage Act. Stewart doesn’t want us to think that corruption is specific to Iran. The Obama administration’s punitive response to the Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning leaks are the most high-profile examples, but there are lesser-known individuals like Stephen Kim whose lives have similarly been destroyed by the espionage act. Obviously there are differences, as the aforementioned Americans acted as whistleblowers and Bahari’s journalism was mischaracterized by the Iranian government as spying, but the implications are the same. Why should governments punish those that reveal the truth about their actions, and why should they oppress those that disagree with their policies?
As a political satirist, Stewart has a personal stake in this story. It’s quite possible that he, too, could have been placed in Bahari’s situation under different circumstances. Freedom of expression should not be taken for granted, and Stewart reminds us that governments will strip it away if we let them. The only way to combat such oppression is to mobilize and speak out for those whose liberties have been jeopardized, even if we happen to disagree with their approach or message.
The dual format Blu-ray/DVD package offers a number of bonus features that help contextualize the film, including the documentaries “Iran’s Controversial Election”, “The Story of Maziar Bahari”, “Real Spies Have TV Shows”, “What Happens in New Jersey…”, and “A Director’s Perspective”. These are brief videos that highlight the relevance of the film’s story as well as Stewart’s approach to the subject matter.
Rosewater is the ideal film for young audiences to watch and learn about the injustices of the world. It is educational and emotionally engaging, and there are occasional moments of humor that make the grim subject matter more bearable. In a digital culture where people tweet every nonsensical thought that enters their minds, Rosewater challenges us to consider the ways we can use our voices to speak on behalf of those that are routinely silenced.