Directed by John Stewart
Starring Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia
At first glance They Came For Me, the memoirs of Iranian Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, seems like an odd choice for John Stewart’s directorial debut. A tale involving the detention and torture of a journalist by a repressive regime seems far away from the comical take on politics provided by the long term host of The Daily Show, but they do mesh well together. Partly this is due to Stewart’s own political savvy that has often made The Daily Show more pertinent and cutting than many traditional forums, and partly this is due to an interview with show itself being the cited reason for Bahari’s detention.
In 2009, while covering the fallout from the controversial Iranian elections, Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal) finds himself arrested by the Iranian government. The reason for this incarceration is the absurd accusation of espionage, arising from a satirical interview where a comedian interviewing him pretends to be a spy. With the flimsiest of pretexts, Bahari must endure 118 days of confinement and the attentions of his rosewater-scented interrogator (Kim Bodnia).
There is much here that you would expect from such a film. That classic battle of wits between prisoner and interrogator, the trial of body and mind, and endurance of spirit. What is unexpected is that Rosewater is actually uplifting. Not just in that triumphing-against-the-odds, power-of-the-human-spirit sort of way. No, it is genuinely funny, managing to find humour even in these dark recesses of humanity. It turns the tables on the captors, demonstrating their own fears and insecurities and exposing them as ludicrous.
It is a cathartic process and demonstrates the use of humour in helping us re-evaluate a situation. Little surprise given Stewart’s day job, and he uses comedy in a similar fashion here; attacking the self-righteous through parody, making the political palatable, and giving inspiration. All this is done in a way that still manages to convey the horror of the situation without making light of the plight. For his part, Gael Garcia Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries) manages to make the most of this unusual mix, handling the humour and the dramatic with equal aplomb.
This by no means makes Rosewater a flawless film. A few directorial choices ring a bit trite (such as the ghostly apparition of a father and sister that were jailed under previous Iranian regimes), and perhaps the threat of physical torture is underplayed in comparison to the biographical account. However, the result is an equally uplifting account of survival, that may be easier to digest for an average audience. Ultimately the final message is one of hope and solidarity, still maintaining a bite, but nowhere near as harrowing an experience as it could be.