Monday, November 17, 2014

Jon Stewart's ROSEWATER deftly provokes thought without preaching or pandering

There's little debate that ROSEWATER's promotion has been aided in large part by the existing profile of its first-time writer-director Jon Stewart, moonlighting from his day job on The Daily Show. As I consider that, I can't help but ponder if the writing and directing might be getting even more praise if it was coming from a truly unknown quantity. With a cast full of relative unknowns, Stewart has crafted a film that leaves an impression on the viewer well after the final title card has run.

ROSEWATER is the story of how journalist Maziar Bahari was imprisoned by the Iranian government on suspicion of being a spy after appearing in a satirical segment of The Daily Show that covered the 2009 Iranian election. Bahari himself had returned to his home country of Iran to cover the elections for Newsweek. For a while, it appeared that encumbrance President and all-around oppressive madman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might lose to Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who - perhaps not coincidentally - was favored by the west, as well. Ahmadinejad's election was believed by many to be the result of a rigged election, sparking protests.

When Bahari is first detained by the Iranian government, he assumes his coverage of those protests is what brought him there. It's an utter surprise when his interrogator confronts him with a Daily Show segment where correspondent Jason Jones pretends to be an American spy and interviews Bahari. Bahari's jailers absurdly believe this to be evidence that Bahari himself is a spy collaborating with American spies, despite Bahari's futile attempts to explain the satire behind The Daily Show piece. (This may come as a surprise, but Iranian officials are not known for their sense of humor.)

One scene hints at possibly an additional motivation, as another clip of Bahari's appearance on the show has him saying that "Iran and America aren't so different." The Iranian interrogator is incensed that one of his own people would equate their country to what the Iranian government likes to term "the Great Satan." Governments generally crave war more than their people do, and so a government like Iran, constantly fearful of American intervention that will upend their oppressive regime, needs its people to hate the West. The foundation of their rule is based on ensuring the people fanatically hate a democratic way of life.

For an Iranian to speak well of America is a vile a notion to the Iranian government as it would be for an American citizen to say "Y'know, that Hitler guy might have been on to something." Furthermore, for an Iranian-born individual to have such little fear of repercussion that he would say this openly on a TV broadcast likely only galls his jailers more. Revolutions happen when people no longer fear the consequences of speaking openly. And so what we come to see are jailers desperate to break Bahari.

It'll be interesting to see if ROSEWATER provokes any debates about torture similar to what Zero Dark Thirty incited a few years ago. The films depict markedly different versions of torture. Zero Dark Thirty's torture scenes were dehumanizing and viscerally degrading while most of the abuse depicted in ROSEWATER is of a more banal nature. During his 118-day imprisonment, Bahari spent a great deal of time in solitary confinement. While it's not the most cinematic of tortures, it definitely is a horrible thing to isolate a person from all other contact for extended periods. Though the film shows the occasional physical beating, it appears that the efforts to break Bahari were more psychological than physical.

The film strongly demonstrates something I've believed for a long time - that torture is an incredibly ineffective way of eliciting useful information. It holds its greatest power when it comes to punishing someone or forcing their compliance. Last year I wrote about some powerful moments in 12 Years a Slave that demonstrated just how quickly a person will break and stop fighting when they just want the physical pain to end. They'll say things they don't mean and believe things they didn't before just so they won't have to hurt any more.

You don't have to go far to find documentation that torture is incredibly ineffective and unreliable, to the point that anyone who argues it is a valuable tool for intelligence purposes is lying, either to themselves or to everyone else. ROSEWATER supports this in spades, for eventually, Bahari confesses to crimes he never committed. Why would someone do that? Because he's hoping his cooperation betters his situation, perhaps increasing the chance that he'll walk out of there and back home to his wife.  Torture makes people compliant, not truthful.

But as we've discussed, The intelligence gathering may only be one facet of Bahari's imprisonment and torture. If the goal is to punish the prisoner and gain power over him, then it becomes clear why his captors would so readily work to break Bahari's spirit. This is about power as much as it is about investigation. Bahari is taken from his home on incredibly flimsy pretense, denied any kind of due process and then is psychologically and physically abused all because state officials must demonstrate their might against an enemy they fear.

There's an analogy that's begging to be drawn there. It might surprise you that the film doesn't try to find a way to compare Bahari's imprisonment with any number of "suspected terrorists" who found themselves rounded up on thin pretenses by U.S. officials and tossed into the legal limbo of Guantanamo Bay. There, government officials enthusiastically had interrogators use dehumanizing interrogations that ultimately degraded this nation as much as they did the suspected terrorists. And eventually, given the nature of how torture works, it likely yielded as much bad information as good.

Stewart doesn't go near this territory, likely in part because it would widen the scope of the story beyond Bahari's experience. Even if there had been a way to deal with this notion more directly, it would have given the idiots at Fox News an easy talking point to attack the film with. Perhaps not every viewer will come away drawing the same comparisons as I did, but it is hard to watch this film and not be swayed on how torture is a tool that more effectively brings compliance and submission rather than credible information.

It's to Stewart's credit that he made a film capable of provoking these questions. Perhaps some viewers will come out of the film pondering what they would have done in Bahari's situation. How much would they give in just to retain a little bit of hope?

Among many powerful scenes is one that comes late in the film. (SPOILER ALERT. Don't say you weren't warned.) After Bahari's been imprisoned for quite some time, a guard mentions to him that Hilary Clinton has been talking about him. We are then treated to a rapid montage of news channels discussing the outrage over the detainment of a journalist. A great deal of this is due to an effort from Bahari's wife to keep the imprisonment in the public eye.

The Iranians are furious at the efforts of this woman, eventually sending Bahari's interrogator in to tell Bahari to "control his woman." The interrogator gives Bahari a phone and makes him call his wife to tell her to stop. It's the first time in months that Bahari's been able to speak to his pregnant wife and the emotion overwhelms them both. He whispers "I love you" and before he can even say anything about the media coverage, the interrogator takes back the phone. He verbally berates his prisoner, trying to intimidate him, but Bahari literally laughs in his captors face.

The Iranians tried to take his hope away, but in making him tell his wife to call off the dogs, they showed their hand. Bahari saw their fear, and in that moment, the power shifted. The interrogator showed he didn't have total control, for if he did, nothing Bahari's wife could do would be of any concern. He might still be a prisoner, but in that moment, the torturer restored one thing for him: hope.

There are so many strong films from this year that it's hard to call anything a sure thing. That said, it would not be surprising for ROSEWATER to nab a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, and I wouldn't entirely count out the fine work from Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal as Bahari. He gives such an empathetic performance that when one particular title card delivers the coda, it's impossible to not be moved.

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