Do not risk a thought.
These are strange times, darling…
He who knocks on the door at midnight
has come to kill the light.
In This Deadend, Ahmad Shamlou, 1979
They came for him one morning in June 2009. He was in his bedroom in his mother’s house, not quite asleep, yet not fully awake. One of the men wore rosewater-scented cologne. Maziar Bahari would come to know the man well in Evin Prison, nicknaming him Rosewater for his cologne.
“Stand up,” Rosewater sharply orders Bahari out of his fog, “We are here now.” With that begins Bahari’s journey to Evin and the central story in Jon Stewart’s new film, Rosewater. Adapted from Bahari’s 2011 memoir Then They Came for Me, Rosewater is a solid, heartfelt screenwriting and directorial debut for Stewart and a compelling journey into Bahari’s nightmarish 118 days in Evin.
An Iranian-Canadian journalist and filmmaker, when Bahari leaves his pregnant fiancé in London to cover the 2009 Iranian presidential election for Newsweek, he tells her he’ll be gone for just one week. Instead, he emerges from Evin on October 17, released on $300,000 bail almost four months after his arrest.
The Backdrop: 2009 Iranian Presidential Election
To set the context for Bahari’s personal story, the film revisits the broader backdrop of the Iranian presidential election, as Bahari races around on the back of his driver Davood’s motorbike, filming the mounting pre-election excitement. The excitement turns into protests as the election results are contested and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is declared the winner over the main opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, despite accusations of election fraud.
Stewart’s and Bahari’s worlds merge during this time when The Daily Show sends Jason Jones to Iran to cover the elections. Bahari appears approximately two minutes into the first sketch, entitled “Behind the Veil – Minarets of Menace.”
Though the reasons for Bahari’s imprisonment are far more complex than his participation in a single satirical sketch, the sketch is used against him during one of his many interrogation sessions with Rosewater. “So can you tell me why an American spy has chosen to interview you?” Rosewater asks Bahari, referring to the sketch. “And why would a real spy have a TV show?” Bahari responds with his own question, in a futile attempt to refute absurdity with logic. Unable to prove their allegations that Bahari is spying for foreign intelligence organizations (which included for Rosewater the CIA, MI6, Mossad and Newsweek), the regime finally charges him with “media espionage.” It’s a laughable charge if it were not paired with solitary confinement, almost daily beatings and being threatened with death.
Dark Humor, Dances with Cohen
Although the film makes it clear that Bahari was physically tortured, it wisely does not focus solely on physical violence at the expense of the pervasive psychological tension. We can almost feel Rosewater’s breath in Bahari’s ear and a palpable sense of fear as Bahari sits blindfolded, unsure whether he’ll receive a punch or a question, or both. To break the tension, Stewart makes deft and selective use of humor through dialogue and smart cuts.
In the film, we also see Bahari communicating with his deceased father and sister, both of whom had been imprisoned and tortured themselves under previous regimes. In his book, Bahari mentions that he had completely imaginary conversations with them while in prison. Stewart incorporates these conversations into the film, treating them as real. These scenes are well-handled, thanks to nuanced acting and careful staging.
The overall mood of the movie lifts as soon as Bahari is allowed to call his fiancé and learns that they are having a baby girl. A range of emotions sweeps quickly across his face as he cries with joy and then laughs uncontrollably. He glides defiantly and gracefully around his cell to Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love while confused guards gaze at him through their monitors.
A Larger Conversation
Rosewater reflects Stewart’s aspirations to engage the audience in a larger conversation about the treatment of journalists, bloggers and activists globally. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 2013 was the second worst year on record for jailed journalists since CPJ has conducted the worldwide survey since 1990, with 211 journalists jailed for their work. Worse yet, from 2004 to 2013, 370 journalists were murdered in direct retaliation for their work, 90 percent with total impunity, meaning that no arrests, convictions or prosecutions resulted.
Bahari was fortunate to have the formidable resources of Newsweek, CPJ, Reporters Without Borders and other organizations and individuals to mount a massive campaign to free him. Tactics included a website, an open letter signed by more than 100 prominent writers calling for his release, mention in newspapers around the world, and ongoing pressure by world leaders.
In his effort to tell Bahari’s story, Stewart largely succeeds. The film is also a cautionary tale, one that emphasizes the extraordinary level of courage that journalists, bloggers and activists around the world display, and the violent repression that many face in their efforts to bear witness.