'You have a real weapon and you choose not to use it.'

(USA, 103 min.)
Written and directed by Jon Stewart
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Haluk Bilginer
Photo courtesy of Search Engine Films
Well, here’s something you don’t see every day. How many filmmakers get to make a dramatic work about a true event of which they are a part? Jon Stewart makes his feature directorial debut with Rosewater, which dramatizes a story that might never have existed if not for his own popular satirical news show “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Rosewater subject Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist, finds himself the butt of a different joke when the Iranian authorities fail to see the humour in an interview segment the Newsweek reporter does for “The Daily Show” with a comedian posing as an American spy interested in the Iranian election that Bahari is covering. Something is lost in translation over the airwaves and the authorities presume that Baharo is himself a spy and an agent of the revolt spiralling out of control following the dubious election results that retain power for Iranian dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. What a joke.

Stewart competently makes his move to the director’s seat by taking a bold turn with his choice of material. One might assume Stewart would try his hand at comedy in his first feature, but viewers tune into "The Daily Show" how news just as much as they turn it on for laughs. Rosewater tackles the political elements of “The Daily Show” with an understated satirical eye for the absurdity of Bahari’s incarceration. Stewart challenges the authority of Bahari’s captors and their government with subtle cracks of humour. Rosewater stands firmly behind Bahari and it champions those who use the media to interrogate, provoke, and inspire.

“You have a real weapon and you choose not to use it,” says one of Bahari’s colleagues when their pursuit of history in the making fails to inspire Bahari to harness the power that he wields in his hands. Bahari instantly has an awakening and he takes the advice of his friend who will soon join him in prison. Bahari, as played by Gael García Bernal, undergoes a true growth as he becomes more than a mere observer with his camera and evolves into an agent for change.

Rosewater intuitively mixes the footage of Bahari’s camera—shaky, lower res stuff—and Stewart mixes forms and film stock to give the film a docudrama hybridity. The perceptual realism of the footage embeds Bahari’s story within the larger context of Ahmadinejad’s regime by drawing attention to the outcry surrounding the 2009 election even if the film itself doesn’t have time to encompass a larger political canvas. The collage of drama and actualité, however, situates Rosewater within the larger context of the frontline journalists who risk their lives to expose the truth. The film champions the ground-level work of ordinary people fighting for change.

Stewart shows ample promise with this pro-democratic dramatization of citizen journalism. Rosewater suffers a bit, though, when Bahari endures capture and spends 118 days in prison answering questions under duress from an aggressive interrogator (Kim Bodnia) who perfumes himself with the titular holy rosewater to mask his fear from his captors. Rosewater captures the monotony of such a long stretch of isolation—the film could be more dynamic—as Bahari answers ludicrous questions in dire circumstances. Stewart, however, disrupts the banality of Bahari’s incarceration by introducing fits of madness in which the journalist gains strength by visiting with deceased family members who also endured torture and faced execution for their political beliefs. Pantomimed dance sequences to Leonard Cohen and titillating false testimonies turn the tables on the captors with subversive strokes of comedy.

García Bernal, arguably Mexico’s biggest male superstar, convincingly plays the Iranian-Canadian Bahari despite the variance in origins. García Bernal, though, that has enough stature Rosewater might have benefited from casting an unknown actor in the role, but the film generally avoids the cross-cultural awkwardness since he jives well with the humour of Stewart’s direction and emphasizes the humanism of Bahari’s story through his spirit. The film gains additional global scope and resonance thanks to an effective supporting performance by Shohreh Aghdashloo as Bahari’s mother and pepperings of popular culture that waft into the prison like the sunlight that gives Bahari life.

Stewart has a weapon in his hands and he clearly knows how to use it. This politically engaged and shrewdly satirical debut by Stewart shows much promise.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Rosewater screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until Dec. 11.