Saturday, November 15, 2014

Jon Stewart's Rosewater: Exposing the Stupidity of Evil in Order to Disarm It.

Rosewater, directed by Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, portrays menacing Iranian secret service agents interrogating an Iranian born Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari (reporting for Newsweek) for 118 days in notorious Evin prison in 2009.  Bahari is blindfolded, placed in solitary confinement, beaten, and repeatedly told he will be executed. "What is more dangerous than the truth, tell me?" says Bahari to his tormentor at one point.  It's the sentiment that lies behind this film, I think.  The film attempts to expose the stupidity of Bahari's arrest and interrogation in the belief that this truth will be a subversive force for good.  Like the Daily Show, the film is about more than entertainment, it is aimed at making a difference.

Stewart has a personal connection to Bahari's story. In June 2009, ahead of the Iranian presidential election between incumbent Mohammad Ahmadinejad and his liberal challenger Hossein Mousavi, the Daily Show dispatched Jason Jones to Teheran to poke fun at the Bush rhetoric that Iranians "hate America" and that Iran is at the center of an "axis of evil." Jones comes away shaking his head in disbelief at his inability to find anyone who hates America, at finding "the truth" that they are just like us. Among other things, Jones snags an interview with Bahari. In this interview Bahari says: "the first thing to know about Iran is that it is not evil.  They have much more in common with America, than difference." He alludes to the fact that Al Qaeda is public enemy number one for both Iran and the United States.  Bahari's interview with the Daily Show may, or may not have led to his arrest.

In fact, there is reason to doubt that The Daily Show was the main reason for his arrest. Bahari was in Iran to cover the June 12, 2009 election for Newsweek.  The election was widely perceived as rigged.  The Iranian green movement was convinced its champion Hossein Mousavi had prevailed and when the regime announced within a few hours of polls closing that the incumbent Mohammed Ahmadinejad had triumphed with 63% of the vote, street protests erupted. (The film leaves no doubt where it stands on the "was the election rigged" question and makes it seem like this announcement came before poll closing).  The Green Movement in Iran erupted in the streets and the protests were violently put down. The number of casualties are indeterminate and may be in the dozens, or in the hundreds.  Bahari had many contacts with the protesters and he prominently documented and reported on the unrest. He also stemmed from a dissident family that would have been well known to the secret service. His father was imprisoned by the Shaw in the 1950's, and his sister was imprisoned by the Khomeini regime in the 1980's. In other words, the regime had reason to keep an eye on Bahari independent of his Daily Show appearance and it seems unlikely that The Daily Show was the main cause of his arrest. 

Bahari himself, did not believe the election turned on fraud.  In an interview with the Guardian newspaper on December 26, 2009, he said:
The atmosphere in the run-up to the election was euphoric; people thought real changes and reforms were possible – people in urban areas, including myself, where reformists, secular and educated people tend to live, maybe had unrealistic expectations. I don't think Ahmadinejad rigged the vote (although I'm sure there was some rigging), but he had been buying votes with the oil boom money for years.
Bahari continued to report on the unrest following the election for eight days.  "I reported on the demonstrations for Newsweek and Channel 4 up until 20 June. The next day, I was arrested by the Revolutionary Guard and taken to the notorious Evin prison," he told the Guardian.

So what is Stewart trying to accomplish with this film?  "We hear so much about the banality of evil, but so little about the stupidity of evil" he told Bahari in an interview on 11/30/09 shortly after Bahari was released from prison. And, of course, that's what connects this film to the Daily Show: Stewart wants to expose the stupidity of evil in order to disarm it.  Does he succeed? 

As a drama and entertainment the film falls short. It is well acted. Gael Garcia Bernal is charismatic, charming, and a pleasure to watch as Bahari. The Danish actor, Kim Bodnia, is menacing and well rounded as his chief tormentor. He knows he is doing a dirty job and is looking for career advancement more than pleasure from the torment he dishes out. The story lacks character development, suspense, and a narrative arc. The story lies not so much in what's on screen as in how this film fits into the back story between The Daily Show, Bahari's appearance on the show, and what Stewart is trying to accomplish. 

The film attempts to paint the interrogators and the interrogation as stupid: how could they be so naive as to mistake Bahari for a spy on account of a play-acting skit on The Daily Show? How could they be so stupid as to think that the telecast of a coerced confession would be useful? The interrogator, smelling of sweat and rosewater (there is a marvelous sequence with the opening credits where a woman conveys violence in how she picks roses) is given the task to extract a "confession" from Bahari that he was working as a Western spy to influence events in Iran. It seems clear that the interrogators are not naive so much about Bahari's true status, as that they don't care. To the extent that the regime has just killed dozens (or hundreds) to suppress a popular revolt, protesting an election which the regime may have rigged, it seems it would be beneficial to the regime in battling its domestic opponents to be able to point to an example of a Western journalist stirring up trouble. The effort is certainly evil: it seems neither banal nor stupid.

The U.S., of course, has been doing stupid things in the Middle East for a long time now. In 1953 we teamed up with Britain to orchestrate the overthrow of Iran's popular prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh for "strategic reasons."  The British were concerned about losing an oil cash-cow; the U.S. was concerned about communist phantoms.  Eisenhower and the CIA thought they knew what they were doing--they did not. And should we consider Kurt Vonnegut's 1965 comedic novel "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater?" here. In Vonnegut's novel, Eliot Rosewater is a drunk volunteer fireman (but President of the fabulously rich Rosewater Foundation) who attempts "a noble experiment with human nature." The book pokes fun at greed, hypocrisy, and follies of the flesh we are all heir to. It's too obscure a reference without Google for me, and I suspect most filmgoers, but it's hard to believe Stewart was not aware of it when he selected his title.

Does this film strike a blow at repression in Iran in a way that might do some good, as opposed to just feel good for Mr. Stewart?  I don't know if it does, but I think it is Stewart's purpose. Thinking about this and watching the attempt, even if it is futile, makes this film well worth watching.

[Here is the Daily Show dedicated to promotion of the film on Novembert 13, 2014]

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