The Cost of Exposing the Truth

When I heard that Jon Stewart (of The Daily Show) had written and directed a feature film about Iran, I was ready to be first in line at the box office. I didn’t expect greatness from Stewart on his first film, but I had no doubt that my curiosity would be rewarded. And it was, though not without a number of disappointments.

Investigative journalists are the prophets of our time. To share some of their stories and the risks (including death) they face every day is critical if we want their vital work to continue.

Rosewater is based on the true story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian Canadian journalist living in London (UK) who went to Iran in June of 2009 to cover the Iranian election and stayed rather longer than he had anticipated (especially given that his wife, Paola, was five months pregnant when he left). Immediately following the election, during which Bahari videotaped some irregularities, Bahari was arrested in Tehran and accused of espionage [spoiler alert for those who do not wish to know what happened to Bahari after that]. In prison, Bahari was kept in solitary confinement, where he was regularly visited, threatened, and abused by a man identified as Rosewater (because of the perfume he wore). Fearing for his life, Bahari went on Iranian TV to confess his revolutionary crimes against Iran and admit that Western journalists were spies. After 118 days in prison, international pressure (initiated by Bahari’s mother and his wife) caused Iran to release Bahari on bail for $300,000, just days before the birth of his daughter.

Stewart’s film of Bahari’s imprisonment suffers primarily from a lack of imagination. There were notable attempts at originality, like when Bahari’s family story is displayed on the walls of the buildings he passes, and there were some beautiful scenes in prison, like when Bahari dances to a Leonard Cohen song that his captors cannot hear. But on the whole, Rosewater feels like a straightforward and overlong imprisonment tale.

Curious, also, is Stewart’s choice of Mexican actor, Gael García Bernal, as Bahari. Bernal is an excellent actor, and he does a commendable job here, but why choose a Mexican actor to play a role where he speaks English with an Iranian accent? For that matter, why choose the Danish actor Kim Bodnia (also a fine actor) to play Rosewater, again speaking English with an Iranian accent? My own preference is to use the original language with subtitles. If that is not desired or possible, I’m not convinced having an accent makes us think the actor is speaking Farsi.

However, my biggest complaint about Rosewater is the lost opportunity to give us a history of Iran and some solid background to Bahari’s imprisonment (e.g,. how was his imprisonment viewed by people in Iran and around the world, as well as the pressure for his release?). We hear that Bahari’s father was imprisoned by the Shah and that his sister was imprisoned by Ayatollah Khomeini. What a great opportunity to use their stories to give us some context to life in Iran. Instead, their stories are mentioned only briefly in passing and we are left wondering what really happened to them. It was a nice touch, though, to have Bahari’s father and sister “visit” him in prison. Those conversations were a highlight.

There were many other nice touches in Rosewater. Bernal and Bodnia performed very well in their key roles. The scenes between them were sometimes tense, sometimes funny, and sometimes touching. I especially appreciated the attempts to humanize Rosewater, though it wasn’t always clear whether these attempts also insulted him.

I also strongly applaud Stewart’s desire to expose the ways journalists are treated for trying to expose the truth. I have said before that investigative journalists are the prophets of our time. To share some of their stories and the risks (including death) they face every day is critical if we want their vital work to continue.

And so, while I have a number of complaints, I believe Rosewater is a valiant- and worth-watching first effort from Stewart, and I look forward to what he does next.

Coincidentally, 118 days was the exact length of time in which three members of a Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) delegation were held captive in Iraq in 2005–2006. CPT team members, like my wife, also work hard, and at considerable risk, to expose the truth in troubled parts of the world and walk alongside oppressed peoples. I believe these are the kinds of vocations Jesus is calling us to in this time. We need to hear their stories.

Rosewater is rated R for language and violent content.