Rosewater – a film about the truth and freedom

“You must not just take his blood. You must take his hope”. It’s with this instruction that an Iranian interrogator exacts his mental torture on journalist, Maziar Bahari (played by Gael Garcia Bernal). Rosewater is a film, adapted and directed by comedian and The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, based on Bahari’s memoir, Then They Came for Me.

The film recounts Bahari’s 118-day detention in an Iranian prison, after he was arrested while covering the 2009 presidential elections as a journalist for Newsweek magazine. During the elections, Bahari sends footage to the BBC, of the Revolutionary Guard’s violent suppression of peaceful protests by citizens, against the outcome of the elections, which saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad returned to power (36 were killed people during the nationwide demonstrations, that lasted several months).

While in Tehran, Bahari participates in a satirical interview for The Daily Show, in which an American “spy” asks him questions about Iran. Shortly after, Bahari is arrested, with the interview being used as “evidence” that he is a spy for anyone from the CIA and MI6 to Mossad. The absurdity of the situation is almost funny.

Bahari, who left a pregnant wife in the UK to cover the elections, is put in solitary confinement. His interrogator he identifies only as “Rosewater” (played by Kim Bodnia), named for the smell of imams blessing worshippers at mosques. Every day, for four months, Rosewater questions the blindfolded Bahari.

Bahari’s only company in his white-walled cell, are the spectres of his dead father, who himself was imprisoned by the Shah in 1953 for being a communist, and his older sister, who died in jail, after being imprisoned for the same crime.

Their messages for Bahari are to hold out. “If they use sticks, you must be stone. If they use stone, you must be steel,” his father says. “They locked you up, but you are still free. What is more dangerous to them than the truth?”

The film’s central tenet is the adage “the truth shall set you free”. The film is engaging, but it feels like something is missing. Perhaps it’s the lack of exploration of the complex relationship between victim and torturer. “Rosewater” tries to be the kind of interrogator that breaks someone down subtly. After 35 days of incarceration, he lets Bahari call his mother, from whose house he was taken. But as the phone continues to ring without answer, the inference that something might have happened to her, hangs in the air, leaving Bahari distraught. Videos of his pregnant wife prompt Bahari to memorise a confession which is then tape, but it turns out to be a hope offered in order to effect another psychological blow.

The cinematography, in general, is a little lacklustre, broken only by the footage Bahari films of demonstrators being beaten and shot at by the guards. It’s not that there needs to be more action shots (it’s not that kind of film), but stronger lighting contrasts, for example, could have imbued more emotion into Bahari’s solitary exchanges with dead family members.

Stewart tries to insert some humour in the absurdity of the prison situation. When he’s interrogated about why he has so many phone numbers for certain women on his phone, Bahari spins an unlikely story about how he enjoys going for sexual massages. When asked why he visited the New Jersey in the US four times, Bahari says Fort Lee has been turned into a massage parlour. In this way, Bahari starts to get the upper hand. In one scene, Rosewater is mystified as he watches Bahari dancing by himself in his cell, oblivious to the music in Bahari’s head.

This is Stewart’s first foray into feature film directing and he’s said he feels partly responsible for what happened to Bahari, because of the episode that featured the mock interview with the American “spy”. Rosewater is a good first start for the comedian but it’s perhaps a little too cautious, hesitating in pushing the story or the actors. Stewart will likely find his voice if he keeps at it.

Director: Jon Stewart

Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia

Rating: 3½ out of 5

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Chappie – a schizophrenic production full of unrealised potential.

It’s looking increasingly like South African-born director-writer, Neill Blomkamp, might be a one-hit wonder. His first film, the politically-nuanced sci fi District 9, took the world by storm, being both a hit at the box office and gaining critical acclaim.

His follow-up, Elysium, was the complete opposite – a flop in every way imaginable (and that’s putting it kindly).

Chappie, Blomkamp’s third dystopian science fiction film, falls somewhere between these two, lukewarm and tepid compared to the originality and creativity that made District 9 so entrancing.

Like Disctrict 9, Chappie is set in a dystopian South Africa. Johannesburg is presented as a slightly clichéd gangster’s paradise, in which the squalor that was Hillbrow a decade ago, has infected the entire city.

To solve the crime problem, droids are created to police the city à la iRobot and Robocop. But lead designer for these “scouts”, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), wants to take it a step further. He believes he can create a robot that is true artificial intelligence: a sentient being that is able to feel, to think for itself, to have that thing humans pride themselves on, consciousness. Once he perfects the ability to ‘create’ consciousness, he saves a beaten up robot from becoming scrap and so, “Chappie” is born.

The robot is hijacked by gangsters, Ninja and Yolandi Visser (of Die Antwoord infamy), who play themselves (they even keep their names in the film). They want to use Chappie for a cash-in-transit robbery.

At first this sentient robot is like a child, or a pet. He has to learn language and thought patterns until he can develop his own opinions and make independent decisions. The effects used to create Chappie are interesting. Instead of adding the robot aesthetics after filming, actor Sharlto Copley donned a robot suit, giving the machine very “human” movements. The effect is spoiled however, by Blomkamp’s decision to have Chappie mimic the distracting zef-Afrikaans accent and call Ninja and Yolandi “daddy” and “mommy”.

Ninja is hell-bent on teaching Chappie how to kill, while his maker, Deon, tries to instil ‘values’ in the robot, such forbidding him to commit crime and telling him he can be anything he wants to (remember your mom telling you that when you were eight?). All the while, Chappie and Deon are being hunted down by an overzealous colleague, Vincent Moore (played by Hugh Jackman). The latter believes that giving a machine consciousness, is immoral, and he’ll do anything to stop it.

The story is haphazard and unfocused, with various sub-plots involving gangsters to whom Ninja owes money, Yolandi’s apparent desire to be a mother, Moore’s jealousy of Deon, and his plan for revenge…

Chappie had the potential to become an interesting platform for asking Cartesian questions about what it means to be human. If you can think independently, does it mean you are, in fact, real or human? The inherent contradiction in plans to ‘create’ and ‘transfer’ consciousness are skirted over. The film becomes one long piece of action scene upon boring, hackneyed action scene.

Touching moments, like Chappie’s encounter with a stray dog, become lost in the contrivance. There is a scene in which Yolandi reads Chappie a story about a black sheep. She tells Chappie that what makes him special, is that he has a soul that will go to “another place” when he “dies”. The moment borders on tenderness, but falls short when shortly after, Ninja tries to teach Chappie to “walk like a gangster” and be “cool”. Is Blomkamp trying to be funny? Is he trying to make you choke up?

Yolandi and Ninja’s acting feels forced and inauthentic. Who knows, perhaps they are like that off-screen. After all, they ‘live’ their musical personas to the point where they managed to infuriate everyone from the director, to the international cast members (I’ve independently confirmed that all involved have vowed never to work with the duo again).

Sci fi queen, Sigourney Weaver, can count herself lucky that her role as the head of the company, which manufactures the droids, is a small one. Hugh Jackman plays the role of the anti-A.I. maniac well, and is one of the film’s redeeming figures. There should be some sympathy for Dev Patel (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) who really is a stellar actor, caught in a messy, schizophrenic production.

The film also seems to be one big advertisement for Die Antwoord. Not only are Yolandi and Ninja, Yolandi and Ninja, but everything from the graffiti, to their clothing and of course the soundtrack, is Die Antwoord. Their involvement in this movie is probably its biggest downfall.

Rating: 2½ out of 5
Cast: Dev Patel, Sharlto Copley, Hugh Jackman, Ninja, Yolandi Visser, Sigourney Weaver
Director: Neil Blomkamp
Local release date: 13 March 2015

“Look at all the lonely people…” – The disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

“All the lonely people/ Where do they all come from?” The Beatles crooned. An apt description for the woman at the centre of the film, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them. Every relationship consists of three stories: those of the two people involved and a third, less subjective version, a combination of their two points of view.

That’s the premise of this film, in which saw debut writer-director Ned Benson, make two separate Rigby films, one subtitled Him, the other Her, both screened at Cannes in previous years. These are the same story of a New York couple, Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Conor (James McAvoy), whose marriage falls apart after a tragic loss. The two films have slightly different emphases to show the characters’ different feelings during the same situations. Them merges these two versions into a compelling two-hour re-cut.

The film begins with a scene from a happy time, when Eleanor and Conor ditch a restaurant bill and run into a park. They roll in the grass, staring at the fireflies. It’s a time of laughter, love, joy. The very next scene however, shows Eleanor trying to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge and into a river. What led to this moment? Slowly, as the film oscillates between Eleanor and Conor’s different viewpoints, and through flashbacks of the past, the viewer comes to understand what it is that pulled the two apart, and how they let it happen.

After Eleanor’s attempted suicide she moves in with her parents, living in her childhood bedroom. The poster for the classic film A Man and a Woman, adorns the wall, appears not accidental, referring to the story of a couple who had to overcome personal tragedies to be together. Eleanor begins to take some classes at university, where she strikes up a friendship with her professor (Viola Davis), whose pithy, cynical truths seem to help her move on. “He stayed soft. I turned hard,” she says about her divorce, a line Eleanor appropriates minutes later to explain why her own marriage has failed.

But even as Eleanor tries to carve out a new life, Conor struggles. He follows her across the city, watching her, trying to catch a glimpse of the life that no longer involves him. Their conversation they sit on the pavement after Conor is hit by a car while begging Eleanor to hear him out, reveals their inability to overcome tragedy. “I was gonna say something good. Something that would have solved all our problems and make it all better but I forgot what it was,” Connor tells Eleanor. “That’s too bad,”

The film is fairly slow, and I feel a bit as if I’ve missed out by seeing the first two, even though they tell the same story. Jessica Chastain is a powerful Eleanor Rigby, the epitome of The Beatles’ lonely girl, who wears “the face that she keeps in a jar by the door”. James McAvoy is sympathetic as Conor, the struggling restaurateur who has become an outsider to his previous life.

Them asks the question: what is the point at which a happy relationship goes from good to bad, and is it ever possible to go back? At times, the film feels slightly vague but it is a poignant navigation of the emotional complexities that mark the end of a strong bond between two people. As so often in life, there is no big revelation to push them back together, just hints that different choices are possible.

Rating: 3½ out of 5

Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Viola Davis, William Hurt

Director: Ned Benson

Local release date: 13 March 2015