"The first thing to know about Iran is that it's not evil."
Uttered with a coy smile and a knowing glint in the eye, these are the words of Maziar Bahari, a Canadian-Iranian journalist interviewed by The Daily Show in a spoof on Iranian-American relations in June 2009. A week later, Bahari was taken from his childhood home and imprisoned in Iran's notorious Evin prison for his role in documenting the atrocities perpetrated by the regime in the wake of the country's disputed presidential elections. Inside, he faced solitary confinement, beatings, psychological torture and the threat of execution, before eventually being released after a gruelling 4-month ordeal.
Bahari had travelled to his country of birth to cover the political proceedings for Newsweek magazine, but soon found himself at the heart of a public protest movement, dubbed the "Green Revolution", which rose up following allegations of vote-rigging and resulted in the deaths of dozens of innocent civilians.
Following his release, partly a result of the tireless campaigning on behalf of his then-pregnant fiancée, Bahari published a book about his experience behind bars, Then They Came For Me, whose personal rendering of this deeply political tale has now served AS the basis of a new film, Rosewater.
The evocative title of the film, enhanced by a beautifully-shot opening sequence documenting the picking and soaking of rose petals to make rosewater, serves both as an ode to the sights and scents of Iran itself, and as a metonym for the figure of Bahari's "specialist", the interrogator assigned to his case. It is on this figure that both the book and the film focus, and on the disturbing and pathological relationship developed between captor and captive during the long months of interrogation. The middle-aged, balding figure of "Rosewater" – so called because of the cloying scent of his aftershave that barely masks the stench of his sweat – thus looms large in the narrative; the persona around which most of Bahari's ordeal revolves. As he writes in the prologue of the book:
"I could smell him before I saw him. His scent was a mixture of sweat and rosewater, and it reminded me of my youth… The morning in June 2009, when they came for me, I was in the delicate space between sleep and wakefulness, taking in his scent. I didn't realise that I was a man of 42 in my bedroom in Tehran; I thought, instead, that I was six years old again…"
Directed by Daily Show host Jon Stewart, and boasting an international cast and crew, the film is a polished and well-orchestrated re-telling of Bahari's story; and it is in that very fact that lies both its power and its essential weakness. The claustrophobic space of the interrogation and stifling repetitiveness of the specialist's questions that dominate the narrative render an intimate portrait of the absurdities and cruelties of incarceration in all its minutiae. Yet, like the book before it, Rosewater has a tendency to focus on the trauma of Bahari's own experience while glossing over the plight of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Iranians who continue to suffer under the tyrannical grip of the current regime. Unlike Bahari, most ordinary Iranians do not have the luxury of international contacts and reputation to save them from the batons and fists of the Basij (the Iranian paramilitary force), and it is their voices that are, unfortunately, all but silenced in the focus on Bahari's own. While Bahari himself is painfully aware of this fact, the film nevertheless does little to redress this balance in any meaningful way beyond the occasional throwaway comment.
Indeed, despite its attempts at authenticity through the use of contemporary media footage and news reports, and despite Bahari's hopes that part of the inspiration behind the film is to "show a more nuanced version of [Iran] and its struggles", Rosewater seems more concerned with presenting an image of Iran in-keeping with the preconceptions and prejudices of Western and American audiences than on presenting a truly nuanced portrayal of the country. Of course, it is always difficult to accurately render a place to which you have no physical access, but certain cinematographic choices – such as the dialogue being performed entirely in badly-accented English (the role of Bahari himself is played by Gael Garcia Bernal, whose wooden acting and Spanish-inflected attempts at Persian ring hollow in a film purportedly aimed at portraying "the real Iran"), the presence of Arabic, rather than Persian, signs and numbers on buildings and shops (a result, no doubt, of the film being shot in Jordan, but an oversight nonetheless), and the occasionally heavy-handed attempts to present archetypal images of the "good Muslim" (such as Bahari's taxi driver, Davood, praying on the side of the road, something that would be considered taboo for many Shia Muslims) – result in a film that seems more preoccupied with glossy surfaces and box office revenues than on a faithful rendering of the various shades and complexities of Iranian society.
Nevertheless, the film succeeds in beautifully rendering the highs and lows of one man's personal battle with incarceration, and in so doing highlights the absurdity, despair and ultimately, hope, of the human condition. In the words of director Jon Stewart: "Hopefully this film conveys the sense that people who find themselves in predicaments similar to Maziar are neither alone, nor forgotten. Hopefully they can take some comfort from that."