Rosewater – LFF Review

Rosewater

While covering the 2009 Iranian elections for Newsweek Maziar Bahari filmed protests and conducted a spoof interview with The Daily Show in which Jason Jones pretended to be an American spy. These two acts combined led the Iranian government to arrest Maziar and hold him captive until he would admit to being a Western spy. Perhaps as recompense for his tangential involvement in Maziar’s arrest The Daily Show host Jon Stewart has written and directed this dramatisation of the events leading up to his capture and the interrogation he endured while imprisoned.

Initially intending to be gone for little over a week Maziar (Gael García Bernal) leaves his pregnant wife behind in England and stays with his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) in Iran. There he hires a local man to be his driver and after interviewing campaigners for the incumbent his driver introduces him to the members of the public looking for a new regime. After the election Mahmoud Ahmadinejad maintains his seat amid rumours of corruption and a rigged election and Maziar finds himself filming the resulting riots. Shortly after sending his footage back to the UK for broadcast Maziar is arrested for espionage and threatened with leaving his wife a widow if he does not confess to crimes he did not commit.

For the most part Maziar is left in solitary confinement and is kept company by hallucinations of his deceased father and sister. The only real human contact Maziar has during his captivity is with his interrogator (Kim Bodnia) who uses mostly non-violent techniques to coax a confession out of the captive. Over months a distrustful relationship builds between Maziar and the specialist grows as they try to figure one another out and say what is needed to appease the authorities.

Rosewater 2

Jon Stewart uses his expansive knowledge of international politics to make the situation in Iran understandable to a potentially ignorant audience and exercises his comedic muscles to inject the script with enough humour to make extended scenes of confinement and captivity enjoyable. As a debut director Stewart has also made an effort with the film’s visuals occasionally breaking away from the standard format to display flashbacks and social media in a unique visual style. The film also experiments with sound design especially when dealing with Maziar’s daydreams in his cell. Ultimately though Stewart has managed to find the heart in the story and present Maziar as a rounded human doing the best he can in trying circumstances.

Maziar’s captivity was long and tortuous and at times the film feels claustrophobic as the same two small rooms make up the bulk of the set once he has been captured. While necessary to help represent the reality of Maziar’s life during his ordeal this sequence could have become tedious but Rosewater maintains its energy by using the interrogation sessions to explore Maziar’s character and past, to explore the state of Iran’s government during this period of recent history, and also to unpick the motivations and fears of those holding him captive.

Rosewater is a relatively simple film made on a modest budget by those passionate about telling this story. Set in such a recent period I recognised images from the news and the film felt vital and real as a result. The film is an education in foreign politics and a lesson in how lucky we are to live in a real democracy. More than anything Rosewater is the story of a man trying to stay sane in extended captivity in the hopes of returning home to be with his pregnant wife before she gives birth. In an understated fashion Jon Stewart has made an impressive and important film with wit, intelligence, and heart.

Maybe Rosewater isn’t perfect but it is one hell of a film.

Rosewater is in UK cinemas now.

BFI LFF 2014

BFI London Film Festival 2014 Line-up

BFI London Film Festival 2014

It has begun. Booking for BFI members began for this year’s London Film Festival this week and it was the usual bloodbath as cinephiles fought to obtain tickets to this latest collection of cinematic delights. There are plenty of gems to be found among the hundred of films within the line-up and plenty that don’t star Benedict Cumberbatch or Brad Pitt. Ticket go on sale for the public on Thursday 18th September and you can peruse the full catalogue online at bfi.org.uk/lff. Each film is assigned to one of eleven strands at the festival. Below I take you through the strands one by one and pick out a personal highlight for each.

Love

Love is Strange
Love is Strange

The love strand is all about love, lust, and everything in between. What greater examination of love can there be than looking at a couple 39 years into their relationship? The couple in question are Alfred Molina and Footloose‘s own John Lithgow, a pair who find themselves looking for somewhere to live when one loses his job. During the hunt for a new home each stays at a different apartment and this new distance puts their relationship to the test. From what I have read this is the film to make you fall in love with love again and so is a must see at this year’s festival. Both Molina and Lithgow are hitting career highs and to have them come together as a couple promises to be unmissable.

Debate

Rosewater
Rosewater

Jon Stewart is best known for presenting the scathingly truthful comedy news show The Daily Show, a show that far too often feels like the only honest coverage world news can get. Who better than to present his directorial debut as part of the strand designed to spark debate. Focussing on world politics rather than comedy Stewart explores the incarceration of BBC journalist Maziar Bahari who was arrested for treason while covering the 2009 elections in Iran. If there is anybody who can cover such an event in a balanced way it is Jon Stewart.

Dare

Thou Wast Mild & Lovely
Thou Wast Mild & Lovely

When looking for a daring piece of cinema you can’t go wrong with what the writer-director calls a “magical-realism-romcom-mumblecore-western-with-horror”. The plot involves a married man taking a summer job on a ranch staffed by just the ranch owner and his daughter. I can only imagine what unfold as the BFI give it the just as baffling description of “a rural erotic horror romance”. Sign me up.

Laugh

Night Bus
Night Bus

I’ll let you figure out for yourself what this strand is all about. Night Bus has a simple enough premise; for ninety minutes we follow a double-decker through the streets of London at night. As passengers get on and off we meet a variety of characters, all travelling through the capital when most people are asleep. This appeals to me simply because I know first-hand the joys of the night bus and am curious to see how they translate to the big screen. Possibly one of the most “London” of the films at the festival.

Thrill

The Salvation
The Salvation

An actor that most befits the word “thrilling” is the great Dane Mads Mikkelsen. Mads is taking his chiselled cheekbones to the old West in the what the BFI have dubbed a “smørrebrød western”; I just hope they don’t say that to the director’s face. Fleshing out the international cast are Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and the increasingly prevalent Eric Cantona. If you weren’t convinced at the first mention of Mads Mikkelsen then you clearly haven’t watched enough of his work.

Cult

The Town That Dreaded Sundown
The Town That Dreaded Sundown

You’ve to be careful with cult cinema as what one fan might watch on a weekly basis, you might struggle to sit through once. My pick in this strand is the perfect example of this; a remake of a 1976 horror film set in a world in which the original film is not only true but exists as a film. Call this a sequel, remake, or reimagination, I call it a future cult classic.

Journey

My Old Lady
My Old Lady

There are a few things make a film extra-appealing to me and one prime factor is the presence of a British actor over a certain age. Kevin Kline plays an American writer who inherits a Parisian flat but is unable to sell it unless he can convince its current tenant to move out or die. That tenant? Why it’s Maggie Smith! I’m sold. The Journey strand is filled with journeys, destinations, and beautiful locations.

Sonic

The 78 Project Movie
The 78 Project Movie

Sonic is a collection of films and documentaries that surround the subject of music. My pick of these musical delights is a documentary about American folk music in which the film’s director travels the country recording all manner of musicians performing folk songs on retro recording equipment. The film promises to be a love letter to folk music and analogue technology. Sounds lovely to me.

Family

The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow
The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow

The Family strand is precisely what it sounds; a collection of films the whole family can enjoy. As someone without children to hand I would also like to point out that a film suitable for children isn’t automatically out-of-bounds for an adult. The more I read about this particular film the more I want to see it. A satellite crashes to Earth and turns into a girl who, along with a cow that used to be human, seeks help from a wizard who has been turned into toilet roll. Pure joyful madness.

Experimenta

Vampire Bat
Imitations of Life

In Experimenta art meets film to create something that doesn’t necessarily feel the need to contain a narrative, character, or any of the usual cinematic devices. Do not go into this expecting the usual collection of shorts, Experimenta is something else entirely. This particular collection of shorts takes existing films and remixes, reshapes, and remakes them. Some will delight you, some with infuriate you, but none will be anything you have seen before.

Treasures

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Here’s what I love about the London Film Festival and the BFI in general. When hearing that part of the festival includes the screening of classic films you might presume that the chosen features would be those held up as artistic masterpieces; beautiful but not necessarily fun. Instead what we have, amongst the artistic, musical, and masterful, is one of the most intense horror films committed to film. While lacking in the gore and nudity more common nowadays Massacre instead maintains a tense, almost unbearable, tone of absolute horror and suspense.