by Jordan Canahai
Though we may live in a world where the landscape of print media is undergoing major changes brought about by the advent of digital technology and new ways for information to spread throughout the globe, the role of the journalist—vigilant and determined to bring about truth to the masses and hold those in power accountable, has never been more vital. This is made explicitly clear in Rosewater, the powerful new drama written and directed by The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, based on the true-life memoir Then They Came for Me, which details the personal struggles of Maziar Bahari, the Iranian journalist who was detained in Iran for 118 days while reporting on the country’s controversial presidential election of 2009.
The title Rosewater refers to the incense a young Maziar recalls was bestowed upon the faithful at a shrine his sister (Shorhreh Aghdashloo) took him to bear witness to as a young boy—the same distinct scent that will later linger on his captor and interrogator (Kim Bodnia). When we’re introduced to Maziar (Gael García Bernal in an affecting lead performance), he is being arrested in his mother’s home by Iranian officials under charges of treason, the same fate that befell his sister and father years earlier. Through flashbacks and first-person narration, we learn much about Bahari, how his passion for social justice, as well as American film, television, and music, was instilled in him by his sister, who, in following in their father’s footsteps, was also imprisoned by the same totalitarian regime, and how circumstances led to Bahari enduring the same injustices.
Dispatched from London to his home country to report on the pivotal presidential elections of 2009—in which the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad, poster-boy for the country’s far-right policies is being challenged by the more moderate Mir-Hossein Mousavi—he falls in with a group of young and educated Mousavi supporters (members of the “Green Revolution” named so for the color they wear in support of the opposition), whose facility utilizes satellite dishes (made illegal by the state) as well as the internet and social media to signal major change. When the election, which was strongly in Mousavi’s favor, ends with Ahmadinedjad unanimously reelected, fraud is seemingly apparent, and Bahari chooses to stay in Iran and report on the ensuing revolution rather than return to his pregnant wife in London. He becomes a target of the state and is imprisoned shortly thereafter.
What follows is a gripping and inspiring story of the resilience of the human spirit and one man’s commitment to social justice as Bahari is subjected to cruel treatment while in captivity, forced with the choice of admitting to be a spy if it means achieving a possible release or spending the rest of his life in prison. Though the tension of this stretch of the film is made somewhat less dramatic by the real-life circumstances surrounding them (the audience knows Bahari will survive, since the film is based on his personal memoirs written following his release), Stewart proves a filmmaker of keen intelligence, trusting in his great actors’ emotional, nuanced performances. Bernal shines the strongest, but he’s matched by Bodnia, portraying a man who’s just as emotionally confined to the rigid ideology of Islamic fascism as Bahari is physically.
The film ends with a painful reminder that although Bahari’s individual plight was one that attracted mainstream attention from the press and led to his eventual release, thousands of other journalists and protestors are still suffering behind bars while countless more have perished. Rosewater is a timely and moving tribute to those brave men and women, as well as a hopeful but grave artistic reminder to the rest of us that our freedoms are not to be taken for granted, and in fact must be utilized to ensure justice in their name.
Watch the trailer for Rosewater
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