Telluride 2014: Jon Stewart and “Rosewater”

Jon Stewart makes a notable directorial debut with “Rosewater”, the true story of journalist Maziar Bahari returning to Iran to cover the elections in 2009 who is arrested as a spy and imprisoned. Stewart appeared at the Telluride Film Festival with Bahari and Gael Garcia Bernal who portrays him in the film. Stewart and Bahari collaborated on the screenplay.

Jon Stewart at Telluride Film Festival with moderator Annette Insdorf, in rear director Jean-Marc Valee ("Wild"), Gael Garcia Bernal

Jon Stewart at Telluride Film Festival with moderator Annette Insdorf, in rear director Jean-Marc Valee (“Wild”), Gael Garcia Bernal

At the time of the elections, Maziar Bahari (Bernal) finds an Iran where citizens are expected to follow the commands of the Supreme Leader. Government tries to exert control over all aspects of life, emphasized by large murals of Iranian leaders covering outdoor walls in Tehran. Low satellites on the roof provide some citizens with forbidden outside knowledge.

Gael Garcia Bernal in "Rosewater"

Gael Garcia Bernal in “Rosewater”

Clever visuals show how the internet provides clandestine contact and communication. The film gives a vivid sense of the turbulence on the streets of Tehran as Bahari and fellow journalists report on police beating street protesters. With a sense of humor, Bahari appears on Jon Stewart’s televised “Daily Show” and jokes about being a spy. Bahari is arrested by police and blindfolded, with his television “confession” used as evidence.

Bahari is placed in solitary confinement where he can hear a beating of another prisoner through the walls. Stewart gives the film an impressive immersion into an Iranian prison, with long monotonous times in a solitary cell broken by sudden bursts of violence, and details like ants in food.

Bernal (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) gives another strong performance, conveying Bahari’s anguish, determination to hold on, as well as fear that he may be forgotten on the outside. Bahari has an intriguing relationship with his main interrogator, nicknamed Rosewater from his smell. Their scenes often have a dark humor. Rosewater (Kim Bodnia) is also threatened by his superiors.

This film shows the importance of publicizing human rights abuse, emphasized by a message secretly written on a prison wall.

Jon Stewart at Telluride with moderator Annette Insdorf

Jon Stewart at Telluride with moderator Annette Insdorf

After the film, Telluride provided the unique opportunity of thoughtful post-film discussions with Jon Stewart, Maziar Bahari and Gael Garcia Bernal. When asked why the film was not in the Farsi language of the Iranian characters, Stewart responded that as he speaks English, having his film in anything but English would give it a “quiet inauthenticity” Stewart added that Maziar was a “touchstone” for him while making the film on Maziar’s life. Stewart said that Gael was “helpful” to his film directorial debut.

Stewart said that the film was shot in Jordan with the “Syrian War 45 minutes away” and in a “city of loudspeakers.” With these conditions, “between action and cut”, he wanted people to feel “welcome and comfortable” and “have fun.”

Stewart also spoke about improvising as well as including “serious dark humor” in “Rosewater”. As with Kafka, he added, the worst part may not be what you see, as Maziar was in a room alone for 4 months.

Jon Stewart with Annette Insdorf

Jon Stewart with Annette Insdorf

Maziar Bahari said “Rosewater” reflects how his usual prison experiences were “more banal and common.” He added that Iran shows the “confrontation between ideology and extremism.” He feels that believing “blindly can be funny.” He also described his experiences as “Kafkaesque”, adding comparisons to Chekhov. He said that the unexpected New Jersey jokes in the film “really happened” during his prison sentence.

On a serious note, Stewart feels that anger is “often justified” and “paranoia is often born of reality.” He believes that the UN is the “only opportunity” for long-term global solutions.

Stewart was more humorous at an outdoor panel discussion. He said that topical comedy with which he’s associated is “like egg salad”, delicious when fresh, but “a couple of days later tastes like shit.”

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Telluride 2014

The 41st Telluride Film Festival was again held during Labor Day weekend in the picturesque small former mining town in the mountains of southwest Colorado. A speaker joked that at a place with such beautiful scenery, everyone goes indoors to watch movies.

The film schedule is not announced in advance, adding mystery to the event. The high school gym, Mason’s Hall, and the ice rink are among the places converted into theatres with top-of-the line projection and sound. Even with 9 indoor venues, it’s impossible to see everything.

A conflict with the Toronto Film Festival on film premieres did not seem to have affected the, as always, wide-ranging schedule.

The main street was blocked off for the Opening Night Feed where Festival passholders and guests mingled, ate and drank. This year there was a colorful Russian atmosphere.

Telluride Opening Night Feed

Telluride Opening Night Feed

Telluride always gives three Tributes. This year for a change of pace, one Tribute was to a film, “Apocalypse Now”, 35 years later. For me, the Festival highlight this year was A Close-Up on “Apocalypse Now”, a unique Telluride event. The classic film’s director Francis Ford Coppola and other members of the creative team each showed a clip and discussed the filmmaking process.

Francis Ford Coppola with moderator Annette Insdorf, Volker Schlondorff, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Francis Ford Coppola with moderator Annette Insdorf, Volker Schlondorff, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Francis Ford Coppola with   moderator Annette Insdorf, Mike Leigh, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Francis Ford Coppola with moderator Annette Insdorf, Mike Leigh, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Hilary Swank also received a Tribute. She and star/director/co-writer Tommy Lee Jones enliven the somewhat conventional “The Homesman” which has an unusual starting point.

The other Tribute, to German director Volker Schlondorff (“The Tin Drum”) was one of the most memorable I’ve seen at Telluride. Schlondorff’s film “Diplomacy”, about a German general (Niels Arestrup, “A Prophet”) ordered by Hitler to destroy Paris and the Swedish diplomat (Andre Dussolier, “Wild Grass”) trying to save the city, was a master filmmaker in peak form.

The best film I saw at Telluride was “Leviathan” from Andrey Zvyagintsev, a gripping Russian view of corruption engulfing a family.

Jon Stewart made a notable directorial debut with “Rosewater”, the true story of a journalist returning to Iran to cover the elections in 2009 who is arrested as a spy. Stewart participated in post-film discussions with the Iranian journalist and Gael Garcia Bernal who portrays him in the film.

Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern are both impressive in “The Wild” about a woman (Witherspoon) who makes an arduous, remote hike when her life falls apart. Dern plays her mother in flashbacks. This film seemed appropriate to the mountain setting of Telluride.

Laura Dern and Reese Whitherspoon at Telluride

Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon at Telluride

International films covered the economic crisis. Marion Cotillard is superb in the Belgian Darnenne brothers’ “Two Days, One Night” as a woman desperate to keep her job. Ramin Bahrani ‘s (“Man Push Cart”) “99 Homes” depicts foreclosures in Florida. Performances from Michael Shannon (chillingly amoral) and Andrew Garfield (un-Spiderman-like) highlight a problematic screenplay. There Is even a foreclosure In the new version of “Madame Bovary”.

“The Price of Fame”, the new film from Xavier Beauvois (“Of Gods and Men”), inspired by the bizarre plot to kidnap Chaplin’s coffin for ransom, was very clever, a tribute to movies, and a Telluride favorite of mine.

Another unique Telluride feature was an outdoor panel with many major directors including Coppola, Schlondorff, Festival regular Werner Herzog, and directors with their latest at Telluride: Wim Wenders (“The Salt of the Earth”), Mike Leigh (“Mr. Turner”), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Birdman”), and Ethan Hawke (“Seymour”).

Wim Wenders

Wim Wenders

Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog

I missed some of the big titles for some lower-profile choices like “Magician”, an absorbing and thorough documentary on Orson Welles and “Bertolucci an Bertolucci”.

Also at Telluride this year were O(prah) and Q(uincy Jones) as well as Festival regulars Ken Burns(“The Roosevelts”), Leonard Maltin, and Alexander Payne (“Nebraska”).

Future posts will detail Telluride films and events.