Comedian and Daily Show host Jon Stewart has a knack for simplifying things. His show is known for taking the hype and drama spun by the 24-hour “news” networks and reducing it to snips and bites that reveal what’s really going on. Jon Stewart is the kid who exposed the emperor as being naked, but that kid grew up to get a TV show.
Stewart took a break from that show back in the summer of of 2013 to go film a movie. His hiatus left John Oliver in the big chair on the Daily Show set for Comedy Central, which went on to launch Oliver’s own show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on HBO.
It is that film that Stewart made in his eight-week absence from his own show that is getting attention now. It is called Rosewater, and it is based on the memoir Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy. After participating in an interview on The Daily Show in 2009 where he answered questions about the presidential election in Iran, Bahari was arrested and imprisoned for four months because of that interview on Stewart’s show. He was brutally interrogated by a man Bahari came to call Rosewater.
Bahari never saw his torturer. He would be blindfolded every time he was interrogated. But the man torturing him smelled like rosewater. Yet, in the film, Rosewater is not portrayed as some faceless representation of evil, but as a human. He is seen having a phone conversation with his wife. He has to deal with a pain in the ass boss.
Stewart spoke to Salon about his treatment of this torturer in the film. He says he deliberately chose to present Rosewater as human.
“Yes. Very much so. That was important for many different reasons. One is, they are human beings. So why not present them as such? You know, they’re not the X-Men. They’re not monsters, and if you’re going to battle something effectively, then to see it in a …”
Stewart trails off into a more specific application of his point. Not seeing our enemies as human is an American habit that does not serve America well.
“We have a tendency in this country, whether it be Ebola or ISIS, that whatever is the new threat becomes the new super-threat. It’s not a bug, it’s a superbug! It’s not a predator, it’s a super-predator! It’s this thing … We can’t bring prisoners from Guantánamo here because, for God’s sake, Magneto could break out of that cell. And what are we going to do then? They’ll wreak havoc throughout the land!”
Keeping with his general mission of deflating the hyperbole and rhetoric of what passes for “news channels” in America, Stewart feels that it is important for Americans to see things as they really are, not as Big Headline declares them to be.
“The general conversation between Iran and America has been this: ‘You are the axis of evil!’ … “Well, you’re the great Satan!” … So the bar has been set relatively low as far as nuance goes.”
Seeing our enemies as human is not so much about sympathizing as it is about realizing that they are beatable. And that they are not all the same, not some faceless mass of a society that all have the same opinion on topics like democracy and the West in general.
“More importantly, I wanted to portray not so much even his interrogator in that way, but that element of Iranian society, those kids and that [anti-Ahmadinejad, pro-democracy] movement as something that Westerners might look at and go, ‘Oh, you know, I had a sense of this culture as monolithic, but that’s very relatable.’ And it’s not exaggerated, it’s not unreal. That’s what is there.”
Despite his even-handed treatment of the subject, Stewart — who is Jewish — is being accused by Iran of serving Zionist interests. In Iran, the presidential election of 2009 is called “the American-Israeli sedition of 2009.”
“Jon has been directing an ultra-formulaic movie commissioned by his masters. Jon is filming Rosewater, the story of the American-Israeli sedition in 2009,” said an Iranian state TV report on Stewart’s film.