Maziar Bahari stands stock-still at the front of a crowded theater, opposite a thin woman in baggy clothes, and all is quiet.
I’m here reporting on “Rosewater,” the directorial debut of none other than the “Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart, written for screen and directed by him, but based on Bahari’s nonfiction memoir, which details his experiences following the 2009 Iranian elections. It’s an understatement to say that Bahari’s story is intense, rendered more so by how commonplace he insists what happened to him is world-over. As an Iranian-born journalist, sent back to his country of origin by Newsweek magazine, Bahari was in a unique position to cover Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s run for re-election against the more progressive challenger Mir-Hossein Musavi from a boots on the ground perspective. One of the points the movie—and Bahari himself—emphasizes time and again is the West’s binary-bordering-on-bigoted perspectival deficit when it comes to Middle Eastern culture, politics, and Islam—acting as if there is simply the one massive taxonomical umbrella of Middle East Islam, lumping together Iranian Islam with Saudi Islam, with Pakistani Islam etc. But when it turns out Ahmadinejad’s incumbent government has almost certainly rigged the elections in the President’s favor (Bahari, the consummate journalist, refuses to assert this as “provable beyond a reasonable doubt,” but there is little ambiguity regarding what he personally believes happened,and the few facts available tend to support this allegation), Bahari’s story takes a turn.
After the election results were released, the disenfranchised Iranian electorate took to the streets to protest Ahmadinejad’s ill-won victory. The kind of government that fakes election results is not the kind of government that takes kindly to public protests. Violence erupted and Bahari, being a journalist, filmed it. Interspersed with “Rosewater’s” narrative is the real footage Bahari shot, including unarmed civilians being gunned down by Iranian authorities. Not long after, there came a knock on the door of his mother’s Tehran home, men with guns woke Bahari from his bed, they searched his childhood room, rifled through his things, arrested him. What followed was a nightmare the likes of which you and I can hardly conceive. Bahari spent 118 days in an Iranian prison, kept in solitary confinement and tortured, deprived of his sight for much of his stay and questioned by an interrogator who he knew only by smell, and who he therefore dubbed “Rosewater.”
The charge for which he was held was espionage. The state’s evidence was a mock interview Bahari had done with The Daily Show wherein it was stated that he was a spy. There was no trial, obviously. When asked whether he thought Stewart felt guilty that Bahari’s imprisonment had been directly connected to The Daily Show interview, Bahari scoffed at the notion, saying that if they hadn’t used the interview they would have used something equally ridiculous to justify imprisoning him. Stewart himself has admitted in Q&A’s that the original impetus for his beginning production on the project was a feeling of being personally responsible for Maziar’s arrest. It’s unclear how much Maziar’s incarceration and torture still weighs on Stewart. Maziar’s assessment is the correct one of course, when you’re dealing with the implementation of rabid ideology by the state, assigning guilt to a comedy program is totally illogical. On his program at least, Stewart himself is fiercely logical, but then you have his aberrant Q&A response—that guilt was the impetus for his involvement in the project. Maybe somewhere down the production, Stewart’s guilt got abandoned by the wayside; maybe it did not.
The film opens with the character Maziar. Who I’ve been doing my level best not to conflate with the person Maziar but it’s damn hard if I’m honest since, even if you resist it, a story will necessarily inform your worldview, and it’s very difficult to sit opposite this man and not to feel the surreal dichotomy of that fact, the sensation that you know him more-personally than you know most of the people that surround you each day and but by that same token don’t know him at all, and he doesn’t know you. This feeling is highlighted and given form on the day after the screening, when I’m afforded a 15-minute sit-down with the man himself. Bahari regards me, in my partly un-tucked shirt and khaki pant legs doing the ceaseless amphetamine-jig that accompanies 4 cups of coffee as equal-parts oddity and deeply-concerning indicator for the future of journalism. And it becomes increasingly clear throughout the course of the interview that Maziar is not particularly impressed with me, as an interviewer or journalist or anything, which is just so weird because the movie’s voiceover creates for you a world in which you’re his sole confidant and I know deep things about Maziar, about his relationship with his father and the death of his sister and how he was so scared of dying blind inside a place with concrete walls. I know all that and I feel like his friend and I’m a total stranger to him. The selective realism of movies is totally bizarre at times.
He’s talking about how when he was a child, Rosewater signified the apex of piety, it’s smell pervaded the mosques and holy places, it was the smell of those who communed with god. It’s telling then that his unnamed interrogator—a man who spends his time in dark rooms lying to people, parroting party lines, abusing detainees, interrogating and beating prisoners that this man’s appellation is Rosewater, a metaphor for the manipulation of ideology (in this case by the state) to serve selfish ends; to keep people scared and angry; that Rosewater kept Maziar himself isolated and alone.
All that being said, this isn’t by any means a bleak movie. In fact one of the things that Maziar’s story, under Stewart’s deft direction, highlights is what writer and holocaust survivor Arnost Lustig called “the minute of light in an hour of darkness”—that redemption and even joy can be found in the deepest darkest pockets of human suffering and sadness. “Rosewater” is an issue film but it’d be a mistake to label it simply as a vehicle for a straightforward political message. At it’s heart, it is an intensely human story. Maziar’s release was only the result of his capture gaining widespread national attention, such that then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton started mentioning his case publicly in interviews with the press. It was then that his cause began to gain traction and the Iranian government, looking worse and worse with each day, finally let him out. The film highlights the extraordinariness of his story, but implicit in that story is the understanding that Maziar’s case is the exception, not the rule. Friends of his, fellow journalists, were not as lucky. Today he spends his time bringing awareness to the causes of those he left behind through no fault of his or their own.
And that, finally, is why this packed auditorium is silent as he stands before us all, his audience. After the film ended Bahari was called in front of the crowd and they opened the floor for questions and the first few questions were interesting without being shocking (What was it like working with Jon Stewart on this? Oh well Jon’s great and he’s got an eye for subtlety. What place do you think religion has in government? No place.) and then suddenly everything changes when the microphone gets handed to this woman in all-black baggy clothing. Her back is to me so I don’t know what her face looks like but it goes from a normal Q&A to something very different when she starts to speak and she says that Hi, she really loved the movie, and she’s really inspired by Maziar’s story–and you can tell that this is all buildup and so you start to lean forward in your seat a little and wish you could get a better look at her but again her back is to you and she’s wearing a black hoodie with the hood up isn’t that sort of odd? She’s friends with a reporter named Bob Levinson she starts and Maziar isn’t breaking eye contact with her, a Florida reporter who, like Maziar, was imprisoned by the Iranian government for reporting the truth basically, but the one major difference between Bob and Maziar, the woman in the hoodie explains is that Bob is still in Iran. And now everybody’s dead quiet, and some hearts have risen into throats as the woman explains she’s been doing literally everything within her power, over the past few years, to get Bob out of Iran obviously to no avail. Maziar is nodding along to show he’s following and so, she says, so I guess my question is can you help me? Can you please help? The resulting silence is painful and you have to feel for Maziar as he tries to explain that there’s really nothing he can do. He was lucky. He had friends and a wife in the West to raise the profile of his case until it embarrassed the Iranian government enough that they had to let him go. Bob Levinson is back there because he was less lucky. The arbitrary madness of those who wield religion and fear like weapons, will always taint what it touches…and can turn even Rosewater acrid.
words_jesse salvo. photo_epk.tv.