Telluride 2014: Jon Stewart's 'Rosewater' Inspires Activism with Humor
by Alex Billington
August 30, 2014
Premiering at the 2014 Telluride Film Festival is Jon Stewart's Rosewater, his directorial debut based on a true story he was involved in about Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, played by Gael García Bernal. The film tells a rather straightforward version of the story, focusing on the weeks leading up to and surrounding Bahari's arrest, eventually leading to his time in prison. While the film has some impressive creative choices (including a hashtag moment and some other sleek visuals) it's obviously made by a first-time director, and lacks a bit of the nuances that more experienced directors include. That said, its heart is in the right place.
Rosewater, titled because Bahari's "specialist" tormenter in prison smelled of rosewater, is about Bahari's experiences written as the book Then They Came for Me. After traveling to Iran in 2009 to cover the controversial and potentially rigged elections, Bahari filmed interviews on his own and was interviewed for a segment on Stewart's "The Daily Show". Days after that aired, government men showed up at his family's house in Iran and took him to solitary confinement, claiming he was a spy for "Western media". He was pressured physically, and they played videos like "The Daily Show" segment, while questioning him about how or why he was a spy. He was eventually released because, well, he isn't a spy only a man with a camera.
Stewart wanted to make this film, and tell this story, because he has hopes that activism and what Bahari went through will actually inspire and encourage more than just entertain. But at the same time, the film is very entertaining, which is because Stewart is an entertainer at heart and he recognizes that the film might resonate more with audiences if it has some humor in it. Rather than watch even more torture, more Middle East hatred and oppression, Stewart actually provides something for us to laugh at and makes a few of the moments involving Bahari quite fun to watch, crazy enough. It's an extension of Stewart's notion that the people in Middle East are people, the same as the rest of us, no different. They laugh, they dance, they smile.
The problems with the film are rooted in the filmmaking, with some lose threads (the title is never really explored once he actually gets to prison) and mostly a lack of depth beyond the story at hand. While at first I kept thinking Bernal was miscast as Bahari, by the end I warmed up to him, he is so likable and brings a humanity to the character that is certainly needed. Listening to Stewart & Bahari discuss the film during the Q&A after, they explained that they wanted international casting and a global feel because it's not supposed to be connected to Iran and that's it. It's a film about activism all over this world, ending on the perfect shot.
While I admit the film didn't leave the kind of heavy-hitting get-out-there-and-make-a-difference-right-now impression on me, I have a feeling it might connect more with other/younger audiences. It doesn't have to connect with everybody, just anybody; anybody recognizing the power of the story being told, the resilience of Bahari never caving, that one person can and will make a difference. When it comes down to it, the film doesn't need overly lavish embellishments when it does tell one story very well. It's impossible not to smile when Gael García Bernal starts dancing in a scene near the end, and that moment really captures the feeling of the entire film. Freedom is everything, we must fight for it, believe in it. Just don't forget to laugh, too.
Alex's Telluride Rating: 7.8 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing