In early 2013, when Jon Stewart announced his first-ever hiatus from The Daily Show to direct a film about a journalist tortured in an Iranian prison, fans did a collective double take. Stewart’s directing? And it’s a drama? Though the move was unexpected, perhaps it shouldn’t have been. It wasn’t all that long ago that think piece after think piece was written about the hope of Stewart going serious. Much of this started after his famous appearance on Crossfire (ten whole years ago!) and lasted for years afterward. Directing Rosewater may not have been the turn toward seriousness that Stewart’s fans were demanding, but it’s a good fit for him. Because the same sense of human absurdity that made Stewart a salve during a time of depressing politics is exactly what makes him a good director.
Rosewater is an adaptation of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari’s memoir And Then They Came For Me. In 2009, Bahari returned to his native Iran for a week to cover the country’s elections for Newsweek. When state-run news outlets reported Ahmadinejad had won re-election before the polls had even closed, widespread protest broke out. The state resorted to violence to quell the unrest, and Bahari was soon arrested on charges of being a foreign spy.
The Iranian government interrogated and tortured Bahari for 118 days, keeping him blindfolded throughout their questioning. (The film’s title comes from the rosewater cologne of Bahari’s interrogator, whom he never saw.) The evidence suggesting Bahari was a spy, of course, was dubious, and one especially ridiculous piece of proof they offered was an interview segment Bahari had done with Jason Jones on The Daily Show, in which Jones called himself as a spy. Missing the joke, Bahari’s interrogators took the interview at face value.
Enter Jon Stewart, who agreed to write and direct Rosewater when Bahari approached him for help turning his book into a film. While Bahari’s book details both his time in prison as well as his wife’s efforts (along with his mother and the staff of Newsweek) to get him released, Rosewater focuses entirely on Bahari’s viewpoint from inside prison.
Bahari’s father and sister had been imprisoned by previous Iranian regimes, and early on in the narrative, Stewart projects Bahari’s memories of his elder sister Maryam on Tehran’s buildings as Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) walks. It packs in emotion without being saccharine, and it’s paid off later when the imprisoned Bahari imagines conversations with his deceased family members in order to keep his wits in solitary confinement.
Though the film is about Bahari’s torture, it shows little of the physical violence that he endured, and this makes it a looming specter throughout Bernal’s interrogation scenes. As Stewart said at Rosewater’s Austin Film Festival screening, he wanted to keep the violence “like the shark in Jaws.” Thus, the few punches and kicks that are shown seem all the more brutal and the movie manages to represent Bahari’s terror without reproducing it.
Despite that Rosewater is a drama with tremendous tragedy, it’s surprisingly funny. That shouldn’t be shocking considering the filmmaker, but somehow the words “Iranian prison” and “torture” don’t exactly make one think Laugh Riot. But Stewart uses comedy to cut the tensest moments with the utter absurdity of dictatorial thinking. In a scene where the authorities search Bahari’s belongings, Stewart uses jump cuts to speed the ridiculous questioning as Rosewater holds up DVD after DVD asking, “Is this porn?” The same technique is used again with the prison interrogations, with Rosewater asking an intense set of questions about Bahari’s travel to New Jersey, culminating in the question, “Who is Anton Chekov? You listed him as an interest on Facebook.” The strange illogic of it makes Bahari laugh and the fact he’s able to find anything at all funny is a certain reclaiming of the humanity he needs to survive.
As Stewart explained, “Humor comes from regarding someone as a human being and not a monster.”
Rosewater does have a few missteps. The spread of the Green Revolution and the Iranian protests through Twitter is depicted through floating hashtags jumping from car to car, which would be fine by itself, but the sequence culminates in a word cloud over the map of Iran that feels like an Upworthy video. Depictions of social media are definitely the newspaper-headline-montage for the contemporary age, but that’s a small complaint in an otherwise engaging movie.
It’s the mix of absurdism with hope within an otherwise harrowing story that makes Rosewater feel uplifting and hopeful, and ultimately makes Stewart stand out as a first time director.
Erica Lies is a writer and improviser in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Bitch, Rookie Mag, and Culture Map.