Rosewater Is a Dark Film, But Director Jon Stewart Still Finds Humor Within

Comedian Jon Stewart’s directorial debut his theaters this Friday. Rosewater tells the story of journalist Maziar Bahari, a London-based Newsweek and BBC reporter imprisoned after covering Iran’s 2009 post-election protests. Bahari (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) grew up in Iran, and was accused of being a spy and was detained and beaten for 118 days.

Though the film’s premise sounds heavy compared to Stewart’s typical schtick on The Daily Show, that fact shouldn’t turn audiences away. Before deciding whether to see Rosewater in theaters, we’re bringing you everything you need to know about the film.

Stewart’s first feature film has ties to his day job.

While covering Iran’s elections, Bahari appeared in a satirical Daily Show sketch. The journalist answered questions from comedian Jason Jones, who played a fake Western spy, while filming in a Tehran cafe. Unfortunately, footage from the sketch was on Bahari’s laptop and served as fodder for the baseless claims brought against him during his imprisonment. The film is titled after what the reporter nicknamed his interrogator, who wore rosewater cologne.

After Bahari’s release, Stewart felt especially compelled to tell the journalist’s story. The comedian initially wanted to produce a film adaptation in 2010, while Bahari was still writing Then They Came For Me, his book about the experience. As Stewart tried to pitch the narrative, he realized he had to take things into his own hands. He wound up writing and directing the film.

Rosewater isn’t a comedy, but Stewart finds ways to inject humor.

Remember, we’re dealing with one of the country’s best comedians here. If there’s a chance to make viewers laugh, Stewart’s going to take it. Though many scenes evoke hope and distress, audiences will chuckle at how Bahari uses his mischievous wit against his interrogator. In the film, Bahari makes up salacious stories to play off his torturer’s obvious sexual repression. And who knows why the questioner was obsessed with New Jersey, but the fixation gave Bahari even more fuel to manipulate his torturer.

In real life, Bahari can still actually drop jokes about the harrowing experience. “When they put you in prison, in solitary confinement, the first thing you think about is not really these philosophical, existential questions about life,” the journalist told VH1. “The first question is, ‘Where am I going to pee?’”

Although Iranian culture and politics are central to Rosewater, U.S. audiences will still find plenty that resonates with life at home.

There’s no need to brush up on the 2009 presidential matchup between candidates Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir-Hossein Mousavi just to sit through Rosewater. In fact, much of the film’s team don’t have direct Iranian roots. But the cast and crew relied on themes of optimism and family to tell the story. Bahari consulted with the team about Iranian customs to add realistic touches.

The film stars Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal as Bahari. In a recent press conference for the film, Stewart talked about choosing Garcia Bernal to play the Iranian reporter. “This is a really dark story and you have to play with the nuances,” said the Daily Show host. “The thing about Gael that he had from the first audition was agility.” Stewart described a film scene in which Bahari goes through a range of emotions, from terror to joy. The comedian said Garcia Bernal was the only actor who could’ve nailed it.

Though Bahari’s humor and hope were shaken during his imprisonment, he maintained his crafty nature through the experience. Stewart believes Garcia Bernal translated Bahari’s personality to the screen. “Even in the audition, [Garcia Bernal] had glimmers of Maziar’s mischief while still doing scenes of real duress.”

Bahari’s family history is also prevalent in Rosewater. His father and older sister had both been political prisoners under two other Iranian regimes. As the film shows, the reporter thought of them frequently during his own imprisonment. “I had to tap into my inner resources, and part of that was the memories of my family. Conversations that we had and the love that we shared,” said Bahari.

During his sentence, Bahari’s wife was in London and pregnant with his first child. His elderly mother was in Tehran, pleading with Western contacts for help. His sister was featured in flashback scenes. The reporter believes that the film’s female characters resonate strongly with women viewers. “Women [have] come to me, and they identify with the film, maybe more than men, because of the strength of these three strong female characters. My mother, my sister, and my wife — they are the heart and soul of the film,” said Bahari.

Location was key.

It would be awesome if Stewart had been stealthily able to make Rosewater in Iran. However, the comedian made concessions to get Bahari’s story on the screen. The film was shot in Amman, Jordan, nearly 1,000 miles from Tehran. Montage scenes were shot by Bahari’s contacts in the Iranian capital and then edited into footage from Stewart’s production.

The Daily Show host claimed he initially wanted to make a grittier version of Rosewater. “I was a purist,” Stewart said. “I would say, ’This all must be done in Farsi [Iran’s official language], and it all must be done with a cast of actors who had all been imprisoned in Iran.’ And Maziar would very calmly say, ’But don’t you want people to see it?’”

Rosewater is timely and well-acted, but don’t expect it to be an award season hit.

There’s a small chance Garcia Bernal could eke out a nomination for Best Actor, but don’t expect to hear tons about Rosewater during awards season. The narrative is compelling, but much of Bahari’s fear and uncertainty doesn’t come through on the big screen. While trying to reach as broad an audience as possible, the movie relies too heavily on the aspect of hope instead of depicting the full brutality Bahari suffered. Showing Bahari’s beatings wouldn’t have been gratuitous. Capturing the reporter’s true emotional crisis would’ve made Rosewater stronger and flexed Garcia Bernal’s strong acting even further. But as Stewart’s first feature film, Rosewater is above average and he gets kudos for the effort.

Rosewater opens Friday, November 14.

[Photo Credit: Open Road Films]