Jon Stewart’s assured directorial debut Rosewater (2014) is a dramatic reconstruction of the real-life arrest and detention of Iranian-Canadian filmmaker and journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia-Bernal). In 2009, Bahari was detained in solitary confinement in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison accused of espionage. Although based in London, Bahari had come to Iran to visit his mother Moloojoon (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and cover the presidential elections for Newsweek. Following the landslide victory of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in elections many deemed to have been rigged, there was widespread demonstrations. When these were brutally suppressed, Bahari captured some damning footage.
After his film was aired, the state security officers came for Bahari who was staying with his mother in her Tehran Apartment. He was arrested and his laptop and DVDs seized as evidence. Stewart, best known as the former host of The Daily Show, wisely focuses on the absurdity of Bahari’s situation and the illogical accusations of the Iranian regime. While in Tehran, Bahari is interviewed by a Daily Show presenter who jokily refers to himself as a spy. The authorities take this satirical skit as proof of Bahari’s guilt. Bahari remains in solitary confinement, except for the enforced time he spends with a “specialist” (Kim Bodnia), his torturer codenamed Rosewater because of the cologne he always wears.
Despite falsely admitting his guilt and apologising on state television, Bahari remains detained. He is beaten and endures mock executions. However, unbeknown to him his pregnant girlfriend Paola (Claire Foy) back in London and his mother have helped kick up a worldwide media storm. Even Hilary Clinton is calling for his release. In between interrogations, Bahari takes comfort in imaginary conversations with his beloved father (Haluk Bilginer) and sister Maryam (Golshifteh Farahani), both were in prison before him; both are now dead. It’s these imaginative interludes that stop the prison scenes from being relentlessly bleak. Based on Bahari’s memoir, Then They Came for Me, Stewart’s screenplay focuses on some of Bahari’s more humorous memories such as when he beguiles Rosewater with tales of his (false) obsession for erotic massage. At another point a baffled Rosewater watches on CCTV as Bahari dances around his cell (in his head Leonard Cohen is singing). As a result of international attention, Bahari is eventually released. Reluctantly, he left behind his driver and fixer Davood (Dimitri Leonidas) who had no such connections. Rosewater ends on a note of hope, however, with the image of an adolescent boy filming on his mobile phone the police destruction of the illegal satellite dishes he had constructed. He’s simply documenting the truth just as Bahari had done.