In 2009, Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari was assigned to cover the Iranian elections. After filming post-election protests and violence, Bahari, whose family has a long history with the government–both his father and sister were imprisoned for having highly different political views–was imprisoned and charged with espionage. And when that didn’t hold, he was later charged with moral corruption.
Jon Stewart covered Bahari’s arrest and incarceration on The Daily Show and after his release, invited Bahari for an interview. Stewart, being invested in the story and these kinds of issues wanted to, with the permission of Bahari, make a film based on the journalist’s experiences. So using Bahari’s memoir, Then They Came for Me and Bahari himself, the two of them set about collaborating on the film Rosewater.
Maziar Bahari recently stopped by Washington, DC to promote and talk about the new film in a roundtable interview with myself (Mae Abdulbaki), John Hanlon of JohnHanlonReviews.com, Kyle Osborne of EntertainmentorDie.com, and Hannah Kaufman of Georgetown University paper The Hoya .
Bahari’s answers are gracious, intelligent, and he has the ability to maintain a sense of humor throughout. You can read the interview below and Rosewater opens in theaters today, November 14! 

Kyle Osborn: Do you see yourself or are you somewhat removed from the film? 

Well the thing is is that the film is based on my story, it’s inspired by my story, but it’s really a universal story of so many different journalists, thousands of journalists and activists who are going through the same thing every day. It’s also the story of their families and their loved ones. So I see, of course, parts of myself in the film, but it is really more than my story. It’s the story of my colleagues and friends.

John Hanlon: What was it like adjusting to a normal life after you got out of prison? 

It was difficult and easier at the same time because in prison you’re on your own, you’re in solitary confinement and are deprived of all your senses. You can’t see anything except the walls around you, you can’t smell anything. It’s very clean and very institutionalized, the interrogation and torture. You can’t hear anything, the walls are thick. So when you come out and you have your surroundings, and you see water…. The first things that you notice in

prison are not the emotional or ideological aspects. It’s the pragmatic things. Like, “when am I going to pee?” And it’s just that, because when you’re in a cell and there’s no toilet, you have to go to the toilet at some point. It’s that practical side of it.

So when you come out of prison and you can go to the toilet whenever you want and drink water as much as you want without worrying about that, these are all overwhelming in the beginning. But at the same time, I think it makes life easier because you put life into perspective. So when you’re on the metro here or on a subway in Europe and it’s hot and it’s crowded and you say, “this is torture!” it’s not torture because you know what real torture means because you’ve experienced it. And it just puts life into perspective and it’s much easier to live after that.

Mae Abdulbaki: You mention that the film is more of a universal story for those who have been through the same things. How much of the story stays true to your experience and how much of it was adjusted? 

Well the film is a cinematic adaptation of the book and the book was about 300 pages, so it is definitely different. There are cut and pastes, composite characters. I think the truth of the story is there. And maybe the reality was different and reality is different, but the truth of the story is there. Some of the stuff that happens onscreen is exactly like what happened and some of them are changed. But those are minor details that really don’t affect the story as much. For example, the chronology of the demonstration and the elections are somewhat condensed in order to make it more cinematic. But otherwise there’s a lot of truth in the story.

Mae: How was the collaborative process between you and Jon Stewart? 

It was very collaborative. When I came out of prison and I met Jon, he wanted to produce the film. So we talked about approaching different writers and directors. Oscar-winning writers and professional directors and they were either not interested or very busy, or they wanted a lot of money for their work.

 

But we were talking about doing the film and he [Jon] was thinking about the different aspects of the story, so after a year and a half of talking about it, he just said “f**k it, I cannot really wait, and let’s work on this together.” So we started working on the script together. On a weekly basis we were in touch and then I was on the set everyday and I saw different rough cuts of the film, so I was very much involved from the beginning. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here promoting the film. [laughs]

Hannah Kaufman: Can you talk about the first time you met Jon Stewart and how that relationship has changed between getting out of prison and making this movie? 

I had been a Daily Show fan since 2000, and when they came to Iran and they wanted to do an interview, I was very open to the idea because I liked the show. I was very busy and I wasn’t giving that many interviews, but I did that interview because it was The Daily Show. When I went on the show, it was just, you know, meeting a very famous person. But it was a very famous person who was very interested in issues, a very thinking person, a very nice person as well. Then we were in touch on a monthly basis and I was on the set everyday, so we’ve become friends. A five year history now in a close collaboration on a project.

Kyle: You obviously still have a sense of humor. Which is a constant trend and you just joked about torture, for instance. How did you keep your sense of humor? And after that, what has changed you the most? Are you more fearful, are you more grateful? More suspicious?

Sense of humor comes from a cultural background and observation. And it also comes when you can compare one situation to another one. As an Iranian, you grow up with humor. Iranians are very funny, very humorous. It’s not necessarily translatable like most humor is, but Iranians have endured a very tragic history through humor. Iran has been at the cross-section of different civilizations. Because of that, people have endured hardship and tragedy through sense of humor like many other groups, when you think about it. So I think humor is an inherent part of any Iranian.

But then, when you go into a prison and in solitary confinement, like I said before, you’re deprived of all your senses. So you don’t have any kind of support outside of yourself. You

have to tap into yourself and find things that are embedded in you and that’s culture, love of your family, your work, your life experiences. As a result, you become more resourceful. You find things about yourself that you never knew, and part of that are the humorous experiences, humorous films that you’ve seen, humorous books you’ve read.

And when you’re in a situation in the interrogation room and you’re charged with these really absurd and ridiculous charges, then you can use that humorous culture within yourself. So the humor you see in the film comes from the book, but also there’s much more in the book that you don’t see in the film because there was no time to talk about that. I’ve become much more hopeful because of that experience. Because I’ve put everything into context.

John: Based on your family’s political background like your dad. Was there any nervousness or trepidation in covering the protests? 

Since the beginnings of the Iranian revolution, I had a bit of sympathy for the movement in, but then after the suppression in the early ’80s and my sister’s arrest and seeing my how dogmatic my dad was about politics, I just didn’t like to be involved in politics directly. But at the same time, I was interested in social issues and helping people. In Iran, when the government intrudes on every aspect of your life, like in many other countries I’ve worked in, whatever you do is political, it’s politicized. I was a journalist, just doing my job. I was observing the truth, recording the truth, and documenting the truth. That was all I was doing. I had worked in Iran for 12 years, always respected the law, always tried to work within the framework of the law, so I never thought I was doing anything that could get me in trouble. I knew that I was pushing the envelope here and there and doing things that the government didn’t like. And I thought, I might be imprisoned for a day or maybe a week, but I never thought I’d go through such an ordeal because of what I did.

 

Gael Garcia Bernal as Maziar Bahari in Rosewater

Mae: Because of the personal nature of the film and its connection to you, was there anything that made it into the final film or even during the production of the film that Jon Stewart wanted to put in there that you perhaps didn’t want people to see and vice versa? 

Because it was a very collaborative effort, it wasn’t as if he took the book away and added things or took things out. If that had happened, I would have experienced something like that. But because it was a very collaborative effort, it didn’t happen.

Mae: Was there anything onscreen that was particularly hard for you to watch? 

There’s still a lot of things onscreen that are difficult for me to watch. And it’s different every time I watch it. Sometimes I wake up and I get the news that someone was arrested in Iran or a newspaper was shut down, or a journalist was beheaded. And then when I watch the film I think about those journalists. I think about their loved ones, about their families. And that really affects me. It’s always difficult to watch the film.

Hannah: In the film, your interrogator has some distinctive habits, like the perfume spritzing and his comedic obsession with pornography. What do you think these minor details add to the overall story you’re trying to get across? 

I think it just humanizes him. What we really tried to avoid was to have another Hollywood rendition of Iran onscreen that’s black and white. That these people are evil and we are good and let’s kill them. It wasn’t like that. Everything is humanized, and that came from my experience and from the book. I tried to do that in order to be able to have the upper hand on the interrogator.

When you regard someone or an institution as evil or monstrous, then you’re defeated to

Left to right: Gael Garcia Bernal, Jon Stewart, Maziar Bahari

start with. Because you cannot really defeat evil. You cannot really defeat monsters. When you regard a human being as a human being, then you can find vulnerabilities, complexities. And then you can exploit it to your advantage. Not because of altruistic or idealistic reasons, no. Sometimes for very selfish reasons. That I wanted my interrogator to stop beating me, for example.

And that’s where I came up with those massage stories. And because I knew that this guy is an employee, this is his job, he gets paid for this, he has a boss, has to make a report for the boss. I have to give him something to report. He’s obsessed with sex. He’s a married man who spends all his time in a dark interrogation room, beating people, insulting people. He’s deprived of sexual interactions so he’s horny. So I had to give him something to satisfy him. I think it was a stroke of genius that I came up with the massage scenes [laughs]. It could just give him something to take away and at the same time entertain him to stop him from beating me. So I was also mischievously torturing my torturer [laughs].

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About Author

Mae is a Washington, DC-based film critic, entertainment journalist and Weekend Editor at Heroic Hollywood. A member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), she's a geek who loves discussing movies and TV. She is also a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. If she's not at the movies, she's catching up on her superhero TV-watching, usually with a glass of wine in hand.

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