In 2009, London-based Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari returned to his homeland to cover the upcoming election - a hotly debated showdown between Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Mir-Hossein Mousavi. After the election and the disputed re-election of Ahmedinejad which resulted in massive protests in the streets, Bahari was detained on suspicion of being a spy. The key evidence used against him were his interviews with an Ahmedinejad supporter where he suggested the vote could be rigged, his provision of riot footage to the British media, and a satirical interview with The Daily Show's Jason Jones.
Rosewater is Bahari's story, written and directed by long-time host of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart, based on Bahari's memoir Then They Came for Me. Immediately apparent is the director's talent for irreverent humour. He succeeds in finding humour without forcing it, and without sacrificing the tension of the proceedings. Rosewater is clearly an attempt to reach a wider mainstream audience than a foreign made and produced film would reach, so certain concessions have been made. It is a little distracting that a majority of the film is spoken in accented English, or that highly visible Mexican actor Gael García Bernal was cast as Bahari. In fact, many of the actors are not Iranian. However, if you can get past this, you're likely to enjoy the film far more.
Despite being Jon Stewart's first film as director, Rosewater is smartly constructed, beginning with a flash forward, and lacing flashbacks throughout its largely linear narrative. This creates a real sense of tension, prompting immediate curiosity about the film's events from the audience. Perhaps there is an over-reliance on voice-overs for the sake of exposition, but the words spoken, taken mostly verbatim from Bahari's memoir, create a strong connection with the real Bahari. There is real, honest feeling here. The film is about a hot-topic issue, but it does not feel like shallow grandstanding.
Certain elements to the film can be extremely heavy-handed. Some dialogue is very clunky and obvious - Jon Stewart is not someone known for subtlety - but these instances are rare enough to be forgiven. Some of the more abstract elements to the film, such as Bahari's memories and exposition appearing on buildings and in windows as he walks through the streets, are effective, but somewhat ham-fisted. One groan-inducing moment comes when a swarm of bright blue hashtags spread from person to person, scaling buildings and eventually covering all of Iran. The suggestion is clear, but there are more elegant ways of showing the spread of ideas on social media.
The film truly comes to life in its second act, covering the journalist's 118-day long detention at Evin Prison. The scenes between Bahari and his interrogator (who smells strongly of the rosewater of the film's title), played by Kim Bodnia, are dynamic and tense. The two actors beautifully express the strange power balance between the two men, which shifts in unexpected ways at odd intervals. Bodnia does a superb job of humanising his character, a man who is also caught up in the cruel machinations of the Iranian government. Other performers in the film are generally pretty good, particularly Shohreh Aghdashloo, who shows heartbreaking stoicism as Bahari's mother.
There is an amateurish quality to Rosewater, but its goals to shed light on those in Bahari's situation who were not lucky enough to have international attention are very admirable. It's hard to criticise a film like Rosewater; a film that is made with the best of intentions and with a genuinely vital and urgent agenda, but for whatever reasons, just doesn't completely succeed as a piece of filmmaking. Perhaps a large part of the film's failings can be blamed on Jon Stewart's greenness behind the camera, though the film makes it clear that he understands and appreciates cinema. Overall, Rosewater is an entertaining and often thought-provoking work with small moments of greatness.
Rosewater opens in Australian cinemas on February 19th.