The 58th BFI London Film Festival: Rosewater Review
The 2009 Iranian elections saw a controversial win by leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over public favourite Mir-Hossein Mousavi which sparked protests in the streets of Iran. Working on behalf of Newsweek, Maziar Bahari travelled to Iran to report on the elections and was soon swept up in the turmoil. After filming and showing the horrors of police brutality to the west, Bahari was imprisoned from June 2009 to October of the same year for being a ‘western spy’.
The unlawful confinement of journalists and political activists around the world is an unfortunate daily occurrence in modern society. Men and women are regularly tortured and interrogated for speaking out against governments and fighting for what they believe in. Rosewater is one of the latest films to focus on this problem, by exposing Bahari’s experience following the Iran elections. Directed by The Daily Show political satirist Jon Stewart, Rosewater is an emotional, and sometimes light-hearted, debut that explores the extent to which the fight for survival is driven by fear and hope.
Stewart’s film follows Bahari, played beautifully by Gael Garcia Bernal, from his home in London through the streets of Iran and into his interrogation in the country’s most notorious prison. Similar to the show’s coverage of the event in 2009, Stewart shows the audience the normality and courageous human spirit of the Iranian people. The West have often placed this group of people into categories, namely as victims or terrorists, and in Rosewater Stewart negates this by showing that they are human, and have the same fears and hopes as us. By incorporating news and Bahari’s footage from the time, alongside a re-enactment of The Daily Show’s own interview with him, Stewart has managed to make a very grounded and engaging film. Some of the techniques in Rosewater did, at times, feel redundant, in particular Stewart’s presentation of Iran’s protests via twitter. This slowed the film’s pace down momentarily, though Stewart’s tackling of Bahari’s confinement soon set that straight.
Rosewater is at its strongest during Bahari’s imprisonment and it is in these scenes that Gael Garcia Bernal shines most. Bernal is the driving force of this film, and he brings a subtle modesty to the role. His performance as Bahari was very touching, and as he moved from scene to scene he gave the character added depth. While Bernal was fantastic as Bahari, he shone out amongst a group of actors that gave solid performances. Dimitri Leonidas and Kim Bodnia, in particular, gave stellar performances as political activist Davood and interrogator Haj Agha respectively. I do believe that by highlighting the plight of the prisoners that are unheard of, Rosewater has examined a problem that is still present in Iran and many other countries.
Jon Stewart, meanwhile, successfully blends humour and drama that, a lot like his work on his show, makes the subject more engaging for the audience. He also uses an interesting variety of direction in the film, and I especially liked the elegant way in which he presented Bahari’s discussions with his deceased father as he struggled to come to terms with his incarceration. The decision to depict Bahari’s perspective through the apparent presence of those he converses with, and then juxtaposing it against the reality of their absence creates a moving experience for the viewer.
Rosewater sent me on an emotional rollercoaster of laughter and tears and, although I enjoyed the second half more, I do think that Jon Stewart has made a brilliant debut feature film.
Written by Roxy Simons.
Edited by Manoshi Quayes.