Based on the best-selling memoir Then They Came for Me, Jon Stewart’s film about journalist Maziar Bahari serves as a reminder of how fragile freedom of the press can be. Rosewater chronicles the capture and imprisonment of the Iran-born Canadian journalist, who was arrested for filming protests in Iran against Ahmadinejad’s dubious victory over Mousavi. Bahari was charged with espionage and for 118 days underwent Kafkaesque interrogations and torture along with being held in solitary confinement.
For fans of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, there isn’t much humour in Rosewater. It nonetheless is aware of an entertainment value, taking mise-en-scène and cinematography into artistry. The narrative is also for a more discerning audience. Instead of following the formula of scenes cutting back and forth between the prisoner and his distraught family, we see the imprisonment through the eyes of the prisoner. As he doesn’t know what his wife or his colleagues are doing to secure his release, we don’t see any of that until quite late in the story and only when Bahari learns that Secretary of State Clinton is trying to get him out. A brief flashback follows, filling us in on the parallel story of family, colleagues and news coverage, mixing Bahari’s imagination with the true happenings. The same drama in the hands of another director, say Ron Howard, would have followed the more traditional formula and milked the family story, especially as the wife was pregnant at the time.
Bahari is just one among many journalists who have been arrested, detained, even killed for reporting events that expose flaws in governments or protests against them. We see this in Erdogan’s Turkey, in Iran, Syria, Myanmar and Trump’s America, to name a few. These cases of attacking the messenger are even more disturbing at a time when so-called democracies are accusing the media of producing fake news. Of course, we are bombarded with fake news, politically bias news and what I call propagandist’s news (as in The Daily Mail in the UK and America’s Fox News). As odious as some of these can be, they do have a right to express themselves. It just puts more demands on the public to fact check stories and to support the more reputable news outlets. I make that sound easier than it is – which brings me back to Rosewater and the case of Maziar Bahari. Journalism has become a more complex endeavour, a multi-sided object, where one side risks obscuring the other.
I conclude this look at another side of journalism by purloining a campaign slogan from Amnesty International – Journalism is not a crime.