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Rosewater – a film about the truth and freedom

“You must not just take his blood. You must take his hope”. It’s with this instruction that an Iranian interrogator exacts his mental torture on journalist, Maziar Bahari (played by Gael Garcia Bernal). Rosewater is a film, adapted and directed by comedian and The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, based on Bahari’s memoir, Then They Came for Me.

The film recounts Bahari’s 118-day detention in an Iranian prison, after he was arrested while covering the 2009 presidential elections as a journalist for Newsweek magazine. During the elections, Bahari sends footage to the BBC, of the Revolutionary Guard’s violent suppression of peaceful protests by citizens, against the outcome of the elections, which saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad returned to power (36 were killed people during the nationwide demonstrations, that lasted several months).

While in Tehran, Bahari participates in a satirical interview for The Daily Show, in which an American “spy” asks him questions about Iran. Shortly after, Bahari is arrested, with the interview being used as “evidence” that he is a spy for anyone from the CIA and MI6 to Mossad. The absurdity of the situation is almost funny.

Bahari, who left a pregnant wife in the UK to cover the elections, is put in solitary confinement. His interrogator he identifies only as “Rosewater” (played by Kim Bodnia), named for the smell of imams blessing worshippers at mosques. Every day, for four months, Rosewater questions the blindfolded Bahari.

Bahari’s only company in his white-walled cell, are the spectres of his dead father, who himself was imprisoned by the Shah in 1953 for being a communist, and his older sister, who died in jail, after being imprisoned for the same crime.

Their messages for Bahari are to hold out. “If they use sticks, you must be stone. If they use stone, you must be steel,” his father says. “They locked you up, but you are still free. What is more dangerous to them than the truth?”

The film’s central tenet is the adage “the truth shall set you free”. The film is engaging, but it feels like something is missing. Perhaps it’s the lack of exploration of the complex relationship between victim and torturer. “Rosewater” tries to be the kind of interrogator that breaks someone down subtly. After 35 days of incarceration, he lets Bahari call his mother, from whose house he was taken. But as the phone continues to ring without answer, the inference that something might have happened to her, hangs in the air, leaving Bahari distraught. Videos of his pregnant wife prompt Bahari to memorise a confession which is then tape, but it turns out to be a hope offered in order to effect another psychological blow.

The cinematography, in general, is a little lacklustre, broken only by the footage Bahari films of demonstrators being beaten and shot at by the guards. It’s not that there needs to be more action shots (it’s not that kind of film), but stronger lighting contrasts, for example, could have imbued more emotion into Bahari’s solitary exchanges with dead family members.

Stewart tries to insert some humour in the absurdity of the prison situation. When he’s interrogated about why he has so many phone numbers for certain women on his phone, Bahari spins an unlikely story about how he enjoys going for sexual massages. When asked why he visited the New Jersey in the US four times, Bahari says Fort Lee has been turned into a massage parlour. In this way, Bahari starts to get the upper hand. In one scene, Rosewater is mystified as he watches Bahari dancing by himself in his cell, oblivious to the music in Bahari’s head.

This is Stewart’s first foray into feature film directing and he’s said he feels partly responsible for what happened to Bahari, because of the episode that featured the mock interview with the American “spy”. Rosewater is a good first start for the comedian but it’s perhaps a little too cautious, hesitating in pushing the story or the actors. Stewart will likely find his voice if he keeps at it.

Director: Jon Stewart

Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia

Rating: 3½ out of 5

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