Iran’s hardliners have reacted with predictable pique at the debut of Jon Stewart’s film Rosewater, which recounts the experience of the Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari’s arrest and imprisonment in the wake of the country’s disputed 2009 presidential election. Hardline media sites devoted pages of coverage to the film, denouncing it as a conspiracy designed to smear Iran’s reputation in the world and revive the ghosts of the 2009 uprising.

The reaction to the film, adapted from Bahari’s book, Then They Came for Me, is largely predictable, but the virulence of the coverage and the anti-Semitic tinged emphasis on Stewart’s Jewish background suggests that the regime vanguard is rattled by an international cinema spotlight shined on its abuses. Some conservative sites have sought to portray their displeasure in critical terms, nagging about the film’s alleged artistic failings. 

But what emerged as a theme in the media attacks was hardliners’ claim that Rosewater is simply anti-Iranian, with several articles invoking past films like Argo and 300 that upset wide swathes of Iranian society.

A Zionist Director

The website Asr-e Emrouz called the movie “anti-Iranian” for its portrayal of the Green Movement protests, arguing that Bahari cooperated with the 2009 “sedition,” the hardline shorthand for Iranians’ popular reaction to the disputed election. 

“Bahari published his lies in the guise of a memoir,” read the site’s article, which went on question how the film could have secured such a high budget and why the director was making light of Iranians who saw conspiracy in the making. “Stewart has emphasized his Jewishness by ridiculing Iranians [who say] Stewart has launched a Zionist lobby and his movie is anti-Iranian,” the site pointed out. 

Without citing a review, the article declared that the film had received a rating of “6.6 out of 10,” and faulted Stewart for playing on the audience’s emotions by making a fuss over the distress of Bahari’s wife, who was pregnant during his imprisonment. Asr-e Emrouz noted that use of pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in the trailer “tries to suggest to its audience that the regime is unjust.”

Fars News takes up Cinema Criticism

Fars News Agency, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, reviewed the film under the headline “American critics react negatively to anti-Iranian film Rosewater.” The review says that “most critics have praised the performance of Gael Garcia Bernal but they all agree that Rosewater resembles a TV show and it is a superficial and boring movie.”

A contradiction emerged amidst the hardline hatefest, however, when the Student News Agency acknowledged that some Western critics have praised the film. The Agency’s article scoffed at the Guardian’s favourable review. “Of course such a reaction by an English newspaper is not unexpected and in the coming days we must expect foreign media to continue this trend.”

In a short review, the hardline news site Mashregh echoed the anti-Iranian line of criticism, and wrote that Americans have not forgotten the 2009 presidential election in Iran. Among the approving comments left by Mashregh’s readers, one was contrary. “Always you told the story,” wrote an anonymous reader. “Now they are telling it. What are you afraid of?”

And a Whiff of Anti-Semitism

The hardline news site Tasnim, run by the Revolutionary Guards, seemed to misquote both the Huffington Post and the Jewish Journal to make its point. The site described Stewart as a Jewish media figure who as a staunch supporter of Israel also promotes “irreligiousness.” Stewart is “an opportunist” who “did not become a politician because he did not inherit the full DNA of his ancestors.” 

The reviewer eventually deals with the film itself: “Some people like it and others consider it the usual first effort by a new director with all the weaknesses of a first movie. But even those who criticize it do not dare to take it off the awards season. Is Rosewater going to follow the same scenario as Argo did?”

Interestingly, the hardline response seemed to overlap elegantly with various websites affiliations. Defa Press, a site associated with the Iranian military, framed its irritation with the film in geo-strategic terms. 

“As the influence of the Islamic Republic grows in the region and in the world, a wave of fear and Islamophobia has started,” reads one  article. “This wave, which is managed by the West and is led by America, has attracted the attention of American producers of cultural products and they have included fears of Iran and Islamophobia on their agenda.”

The site also argued that the film underscored the role “enemies of Iran” played in fomenting the Green Movement uprising. “Nowadays it has become clear what roles the enemies of the Islamic Revolution played in those days to fan the flames of sedition in Iran,” it wrote.

But will it be Nominated for an Oscar?

The broad reaction across Iran’s hardline media, while largely expected, was notable for its breadth and considered range of reaction. As far back as March, the Guards-affiliated Tasnim News Site referred to Stewart’s collaboration with Bahari, writing that a coalition had been forged between a powerful team of US producers and the Iranian opposition abroad. 

“This calls for a vast response by the government, by cultural authorities and by the people. Tasnim News Agency will open a news front to confront the newest anti-Iranian movie project by America,” the site promised at the time. 

But it is not only hardline media that has focused on Rosweater. Hamshahri, the highest circulation daily newspaper in the country, also accused the United States of a cultural project of Iranophobia. That the film debuted at the Telluride Film Festival, Hamshahri wrote, was similar to Argo’s debut at the same festival and seemed a harbinger of a similarly orchestrated critical success.

The website Café Cinema wrote that “considering the hot topic of the movie it is quite possible that Rosewater will follow in the footsteps of Argo to the Oscars.” The site also jokingly suggested that Rosewater is sure to be better than Golden Collars, an anti- Green Movement film produced with support from former President Ahmadinejad’s government.

In the rush of criticism around film festivals that are keen to reward “anti-Iranian” films, it seems largely forgotten that the very same festival circuit helped launch contemporary Iran’s new wave cinema movement. 

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