THE INTERSECTION OF “ROSEWATER” AND “CITIZENFOUR”
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Election Day 2014 has come and gone, but the issues, the ones that are never truly addressed through the electoral process or during the all-too-brief legislative interludes that punctuate the big money/big game campaigns that have replaced actual governance, stubbornly remain. Once upon a time, we would have referred to this collection of issues as the elephant in the room, but the herd has become, in essence, the wild kingdom of teeming life outside the scope and parameters of humanity, as we know it. I dare you to offer up a detailed accounting of the “issues” that have been addressed during the Obama administration – those not under threat from either the opposing party or from within the ranks of the Democrats in Congress.
Thankfully, film offers a retreat from the burdensome immensity of the ever-growing aggregation of unaddressed issues because onscreen narratives generally hone in with furious force on one topic and endeavor to reach some resolution or set upon the task of challenging audiences to question either their own assumptions or the root sources of their information. But even here the nature of politics impacts, indeed blunts, the ability of the medium to achieve its objectives. Modern politics lack a necessary degree of subtlety and intellectual nuance, rendering the electorate unable to react to anything short of sledgehammer attacks geared at bludgeoning us senseless so that we will be desensitized to questioning the “facts” presented.
How else can you explain the humorlessness on display in Jon Stewart’s “Rosewater”? The story of Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal), the Iranian-born, Canadian journalist working for Newsweek who, based on a cultural misunderstanding, winds up detained and tortured at the hands of President Ahmadinejad’s secret police during his coverage of the 2010 elections. While being interviewed for a segment of The Daily Show, Bahari “acknowledges” his role as a terrorist, which is misconstrued by state officials as fact and leads to a 118-day ordeal that would have passed under the radar, if not for the efforts of Stewart and a committed and well-connected team of supporters around the world. “Rosewater” captures the feel-good nature of the story and allows it to unspool with deft and a light touch, downplaying both the obvious humor and his own role in the unfurling drama.
What is lost, though, only becomes clear when “Rosewater” is juxtaposed alongside the Laura Poitras documentary, “Citizenfour,” which takes audiences inside the Edward Snowden affair. Snowden reached out to Poitras directly and anonymously, prior to the unveiling of his cache of documents implicating the National Security Agency in a covert data collection scheme that severely tested the boundaries of acceptability in terms of the government’s efforts to target viable terrorist threats. Snowden was aware of the fact that Poitras was already on a national security watch list due to previous documentary exposés and figured he would have a willing and invested partner with contacts and resources capable of disseminating the data in his possession.
It is intellectually intriguing to consider that Snowden’s stockpile of information, while procured through less than legal means, offers proof of a scheme that could turn even a non-conspiracy theory type (like myself) into a crusading firebrand. How is it that we can watch this film and not be outraged by the all-encompassing, extralegal steps the government was willing to take, in an admittedly reactive way, without considering due process? And what about the hypocrisy of our self-righteous response to such actions when taken by our enemies?
We should be willing and able, as individual citizens and as a country, to confront such issues without fear of reprisal. Aren’t we constitutionally protected to challenge and question the actions of our government? The thing is we can’t do so if we can’t seem to recognize our own compromised position. We want to reduce everything to a black and white bottom line, but even when we achieve that goal, we can’t figure out how to proceed. No wonder we can’t accomplish anything.