On MotherJones.com, Shane Bauer writes up his experience watching Rosewater, the new film directed by Jon Stewart, starring Gael Garcia Bernal. Bauer says Stewart gets so much of what Ben Affleck’s Argo got wrong about Iranians and that Stewart’s film eerily mirrored reality:
There is something incredible about watching someone on screen go through the precise moments that you, too, have experienced, like the transcendental feeling of reaching your hand into a beam of sunlight coming over the wall the first time you go outside. When Bahari was allowed to call his wife, I teared up, knowing the rare mixture of relief and freedom he felt when he heard the voice of his beloved, who was doing everything she could to get him out. (Sarah was released a year before I was.) I laughed with Bahari as he danced in his cell after the phone call—far and away the most powerful scene of the film—oblivious to his interrogator’s fury. As the months went by, Bahari combed through his memories like old books. He found what songs he knew and listened to them in his head. Family members imprisoned by the current and former regimes became his imaginary company.
New Jersey is “a godless place, like the one you were trying to create in this country,” the interrogator says. “With naked women and Michael Jackson music!”
Unlike me, Bahari was beaten by his interrogator. I would expect an American film about Iranian imprisonment to exaggerate such violence, but Rosewater actually downplays it. “Beatings were the exception,” Stewart told an interviewer at the screening. “Solitary confinement was the rule.” He also wanted to help people understand what it’s like to be placed in isolation. “We do this in this country.” Stewart said. “We keep people in solitary, and it’s insanity!”
The film expertly captures the banality—and absurdity—of the interrogations—perfect fodder for Stewart’s sense of dark comedy. Bahari’s interrogator is obsessed with porn, and he views New Jersey (Stewart’s home state) as a den of iniquity. “All I know is it’s a godless place, like the one you were trying to create in this country,” he said. “With naked women and Michael Jackson music!”
The interrogator is sure he has cracked his case when he comes across a Daily Show clip in which “senior foreign correspondent” Jason Jones, clad in a chafiye scarf and sunglasses, interviews Bahari in a Tehran café. In the clip, Jones plays the aggro American journalist trying to expose what makes Iranians “evil.” “Iranians and Americans have much more in common than difference,” Bahari replies. The clueless interrogator takes the whole thing literally, accusing Bahari of meeting with an American spy: “Why did you tell this man Iran and America have something in common? Khomeini said America was the Great Satan. We threw them out the door and you bring them back through the window.”
What sets Rosewater apart is that it depicts most Iranians as people we can relate to—something American films, as a rule, fail to do. Ben Afleck’s Academy Award winning Argo has exactly one likeable Iranian character; the rest are menacing and often appear in mobs. Rosewater’s depiction of Iran is closer to reality: a complex society divided between socially conservative and liberal. People have parties. Some drink. They dream about a better future rather than an idealized past.
Toward the end of the film, Stewart captures the twisted game of the forced confession. Under threat, Bahari went on Iranian television and said that Western media, in particular Newsweek, CNN, and the New York Times, had helped create Irans post-election uprising. “Everyone watching these confessions knows they are a show,” Stewart saidin the post-screening chat. “There is a uselessness to them. A daily grind.” To him, the confessions epitomize the “bureaucracy of torture” that perpetuates itself without reason.
Rosewater is a film everyone should see, whether the critics anointed it or not. Full story here.