Sunday, February 22, 2015
Ben Affleck was a guest on the Daily Show a little while ago promoting some film or other. In the course of the discussion, he mentioned that now both he and Jon Stewart had made films about Iran. I’ve been plain about my opinion of Affleck’s dreadful Argo, which Peter Van Buren has recently called “honorary war porn,” and its undeserved Oscar. It shouldn’t be likened to Rosewater in any sense other than that they both concern Iran. (And not even in that sense, really, since Argo isn’t meaningfully about Iran at all, but uses Iran and its people as a backdrop for the struggles and heroics of innocent USians and their swashbuckling covert agents.)
Rosewater is a very different sort of film, both from Argo and from most political films about the Middle East. It actually treats its Iranian characters as human beings, with their own personal and national histories.
This compassionate attitude extends even to the “interrogators” of the nightmarish Evin Prison, like the man assigned to break journalist Maziar Bahari. In this sense, it reminded me somewhat of the fiction film The Lives of Others:
The character Georg Dreyman’s bitter remark to former minister Bruno Hempf after the fall of the GDR – “To think that people like you ruled a country” – could equally describe the pathetic bureaucrats of Iranian repression and their terrible work.
At the same time, unlike Argo and its ilk, which portray Iranians as driven by religious fanaticism, irrational paranoia, and instinctive hatred, Rosewater situates their motives within the real historical context of violent US and UK interference in the country and the region. And it does so without making the film “about” US crimes past or present - it keeps its focus on Iranian experiences.*
My biggest criticisms would be, first, that I wish the film had featured more of Bahari’s imagined conversations with his father and sister, which I found among the most interesting segments, especially as they related to (and to some extent subverted) notions of strength and masculinity. (Perhaps there’s more in Bahari’s book.) Second, the depiction of the democratic movements, while it did capture the energy and optimism of the 2009 election protests, didn’t show the activists and their goals in enough intellectual depth. This leaves the movements vulnerable to being set by British and North American audiences in a self-serving narrative - seen in simplistic terms as reflecting a desire for “Western” consumerist freedom.
* We shouldn’t, of course, lose sight of the fact that the US, UK, and other powerful states haven’t slackened in their efforts to overthrow democratically elected governments and install friendly dictatorial regimes, using slightly more sophisticated versions of the same techniques they employed in Iran in 1953.