Rosewater – Jon Stewart and that comic political touch. (Film Review)

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Politics hasn’t been my thing since it started to make me so angry I couldn’t get through the day without a headache, but I confess to being excited, like all obedient left wingers, at the 2010 – 2012 Arab Spring. Even with the endless coverage it did and still receives, we know we haven’t seen the last of that uprising and even more exciting, that groundswell is happening among cultures that, we hope won’t combine the teetering passions of democracy with rampant capitalism as we in the big bad west have done. Many factors brought on the Arab Spring, including the 2009 Iranian presidential protests that shocked the world with images such as the chilling on-screen death of Neda Agha-Solta and the behind closed doors killing of Sohrab Aarabi, which drew wide-spread international media coverage, not to mention images of women in jeans and men who looked like student intellectuals to our stereotyped gaze. It was a shocking time, but it was also a thrilling time when people-power was alive and well, at least somewhere in the world.

Then, in among all that, we have this odd story of Maziar Bahari, in Iran to do a story for Newsweek, appearing in a comic sketch, suddenly filming the riots and then filled with disbelief in the infamous Evin Prison for 118 days. He is held in solitary confinement for almost all this period, as slowly it begins to dawn on him that he is unlikely to get out of his confinement alive. The comic sketch that supposedly got him into all that trouble in the first place was with Jon Stewart, and while the film Rosewater and Bahari’s book Then They Came For Me upon which the film is based, is sure he is in prison for the footage he shot of the riots, the reason cited is his claim to be a spy, made during the comedy sketch. When Bahari defends himself by saying it was a joke and they have misunderstood, they accuse him of supposing they are foolish and ignorant, and all at once Bahari knows he is in a trap from which there is no escape. When you are accused of something both parties know isn’t the reason for your incarceration, how can you possibly defend yourself?

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So then, Rosewater becomes one of those films that suffers from its broader context being larger than the sum of its parts, and certainly the story of Jon Stewart making the film about Maziar Bahari who was locked in Evin Prison for 118 days because he made a comedy sketch for Jon Stewart means Rosewater struggles under the weight of its own guilt in that Stewart can’t work out where the film is pointing or the best use of his contribution. He’s written and directed the film, a fact based narrative broadly about the 2009 – 2010 civil marches. Like many first film writers, Stewart crams too many facts into the film taking the first forty mins or so to show Bahari’s activities in Tehran prior to his imprisonment, but stuffing unnecessary side commentary including a rather horrible segment where Twitter hashtags appear all over the screen making Tehran look like a MasterCard commercial, or constant references to Bahari’s family who have been historically imprisoned under different authoritarian rule in the same way. When we actually get to the point of the film, that is Bahari’s confinement, the horrors of solitary and the terrible plight of journalists trapped in prisons (and others there for the crime of baring witness as the film states) his family are better represented by Bahar’s love for them and his connection with their memory despite his being alone. When Rosewater’s reason d’etre emerges, these many statements water down its crucial points.

Then there is the problem of Jon Stewart himself, whose comedy I found a little crass in the context of this film. Ok, not only am I not a fan of the show, but I’ve never watched an episode, so perhaps there is a bit of culture gap going on here? But jokes such as claiming an edition of Empire Magazine is pornography and later distracting his interrogator with fictitious stories of erotic messages was given far too light a touch, and stole from the overall weight of the crucial point of the crushing torture that is solitary confinement. (They are funny though – particularly when Bahari tries to convince his captors that Newseek has no power anymore). If you joke around with the people who have intended to kill you, how afraid are you? Perhaps this is how it really is in that experience – I don’t know – but I do know there were snippets of Rosewater that seemed more like The Daily Show and less like a man in prison terrified for his life.

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I have no doubt Stewart must have felt terribly guilty about Bahari going to prison and I can see why he wanted to tell the tale, give it gravitas and use it as a vehicle to highlight the struggles of those still imprisoned, but perhaps to give it the real weight it deserved, it needed a different writer and/or director, and really just Jon Stewart’s money and name credited to production? I may seem unkind in this respect – I know he is greatly loved by many left-wingers I respect, but he’s not come away from making Rosewater with the result he claims he wants because both get lost under a kind of anticipation we all feel for how Jon Stewart’s film is going to turn out, that tends to permeate the project start to finish. I had never given a great deal of thought to the torture of solitary confinement and I was certainly grateful for the idea and information, but I got that message from Stewart’s interviews about Rosewater, not from Rosewater itself.

However, this will no doubt be the first of many films about the Arab Spring, and if it in any way inspires complex others, then more power to it. It fits better as a precursor anyway, and there is no doubt Bahari’s story is an amazing one. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy Rosewater, rather that I wanted more than it was willing to offer.

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