(M) Directed by Jon Stewart
Starring Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia

by Ben McEachen

Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari (Bernal) returns to his homeland, to cover the 2009 elections. Providing footage of a violent protest to foreign media, Bahari is swiftly arrested and imprisoned. Accused of traitorous espionage, Bahari is isolated, harassed and tortured.

The Daily Show anchor Jon Stewart admits to a considered sense of responsibility for many events he depicts throughout Rosewater, his directorial debut. Segments from his show that journalist Maziar Bahari appeared in, were used by Iranian interrogators as “evidence” of Bahari being a US spy. But Rosewater – based on Bahari’s book, about his 118-day ordeal – isn’t a sickly shot at soothing Stewart’s conscience. It’s a well-mounted, targeted testimony to oppression and censorship not having the last word.

Bahari’s predicament isn’t the fault of Stewart. Nor is it due to Bahari’s copies of Empire, which his captors suggest is “porno”. Without hysterical finger-pointing, Rosewater chastises those in Iran’s ruthless leadership – just by placing us in Bahari’s cell. The outrage of an innocent person being forced to confess falsified crimes, is firmly filtered through the absurdity, pain, terror and banality of Bahari’s treatment.

Before #jesuischarlie, detained Bahari provoked an international outcry against those who violently object to freedom of speech. Not that Bahari knew this at the time; Rosewater confines us to the endless vacuum of uncertainty the journalist experienced. Stewart deftly provides history lessons and political pulse-taking, yet rather than an Iranian social study, we're witnessing one man's struggle to survive.

As the confused, self-effacing reporter, Bernal is laudably credible and un-superheroic. Similarly, and despite Stewart’s close working relationship with Bahari, the latter isn't deified. While the intentional tedium and repetition of “Being Maziar Bahari” can elicit boredom, resistance to injustice does contrast potently with pronounced weakness and despondency.

Rosewater is made for those who already support its undercurrents, but that “the enemy” is humanised deserves special mention. Kim Bodnia is repulsive AND sympathetic as Bahari's chief interrogator, a loyal “soldier” desperate to do his job well. Fanning the flame of freedom does not have to deny a voice to those who would snuff it out.

Stewart proves to be an assured helmsman, turning narrow focus upon injustice into worthwhile protest. 

This review was originally published in Empire magazine, March 2015. For more Empire, click here.