Is 'The Daily Show' a weapon? 'Rosewater' reveals how comedy rattles tyrants.

'Rosewater,' Jon Stewart's first film, depicts how Iranian officials used a 'Daily Show' segment as a pretense to accuse a journalist of espionage.

Laith Al-Majali/Open Road Films/AP
This image released by Open Road Films shows from left, Gael Garcia Bernal, First Assistant Cameraman Michael Burke, and Jon Stewart on the set of 'Rosewater.'

"Rosewater," Jon Stewart's first film as writer and director reveals how Iranian officials can "weaponize" anything, including a comedy news show, and use it as an excuse to imprison, beat, and torture a journalist working there. 

The film is an adaptation by Mr. Stewart of Iranian Canadian journalist and filmmaker Maziar Bahari's memoir "And Then They Came For Me," about his 118 days of imprisonment in Iran in 2009.

Bahari's torturer pointed to the satirical "Daily Show" report about Iran, in which correspondent Jason Jones was dressed like a B-movie spy when he interviewed Bahari in a cafe.

As captors asked Mr. Bahari, who worked as a reporter for Newsweek from 1998 to 2011, why he was discussing his "spy" activities on a TV, show Bahari exhaustedly replied – in both real life and the film – "Why would a spy have a TV show?"

Bahari later told Stewart that his captors were looking for excuses to fabricate charges against him. He does not blame the talk show host, according to a Daily Show interview he gave when after his release. 

"I could be in Sesame Street and they would accuse Elmo of sedition," he says.

The film's title comes from a passage in Bahari's memoir, which has now been re-released under the same title as the film. Even when blindfolded, he writes, he always knew his torturer was present in the room before he spoke because of his cloying, unmistakable smell. 

"I could smell him before I saw him. His scent was a mixture of sweat and rosewater, and it reminded me of my youth," Bahari writes.

According to his memoir, when he was six years old, Bahari and his aunt would often attend the a shrine in Iran's holy city of Qom. "It was customary to remove your shoes before entering the shrine," writes Bahari, "and the servants of the shrine would sprinkle rosewater everywhere, to mask the odor of perspiration and leather."

Bahari, return to his native Iran to cover the presidential election and the subsequent protests challenging the results that kept President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power. After shooting news video of the protests, he was arrested.

Terry Gross, host of NPR's "Fresh Air," asked Stewart Thursday if this experience has led him to change the topic and guests he picks. Will he tread more carefully in future?

"You can't censor yourself for someone else's ignorance. There's no way to understand. What they utilized was innocuous and they weaponized it," Stewart told Ms. Gross. "It was just pretense. If it wasn't that, they would've used something else and they did!"

Still, according to at least one television and film analyst, this should be a wakeup call for any television show host or producer.

"We obviously live in volatile times and given the globalization of video (and other) content and the ubiquity and immediacy of its dissemination, there is a greater sensitivity required when producing such content," Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for RENTRAK writes in email, when asked about the impact of having comedy content "weaponized" might have on television shows.

According to its website, Rentrak both tracks and gives insights on the film and television industry, monitoring industry trends on what viewers are watching and analyzing what viewers think movies and TV shows. 

Mr. Dergarabedian also writes, "What occurred with The Daily Show was truly unforeseeable, yet the result has now put a spotlight on how writers, producers and the talent involved have a responsibility to at least consider the potential negative consequences of any politically charged content."

"The power of the medium cannot be overstated and considering the unfortunate events that followed The Daily Show segment, that power has to be used, particularly these days with thoughtful consideration," he concludes.  

Stewart told Gross, "I always assumed that somewhere one of our bits would be used like that — I just didn't think it would be this one," Stewart says.

"I think it just affirms that sense that you always have that you cannot outsmart crazy. You can't ever imagine how someone might weaponize idiocy," he concluded.

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