Sitting Down With Maziar Bahari: The Man Who Inspired ‘Rosewater’

Tessa Roy ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Assistant Editor

Gael García Bernal in Rosewater. Photo Credit: Laith Al-Majali/Open Road Films.
Gael García Bernal in Rosewater. Photo Credit: Laith Al-Majali/Open Road Films.

Would you ever do an interview that lands you in prison and then make a movie about it with the guy from the show that got you in trouble? That’s what Maziar Bahari did.

Bahari collaborated with The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart on a new film entitled Rosewater, detailing the months he spent being incarcerated, beaten, and kept in solitude at an Iranian prison. The movie is a powerful testament to his own story, but also to those of the countless journalists around the world who are imprisoned simply for bearing witness.

This was exactly the point, says Bahari. Emertainment Monthly was able to hear him explain this meaning behind the film among other topics at a recent roundtable discussion in Boston.

What is it like to work with Jon Stewart?

It was a very refreshing experience. I think he’s a genius, and I’ve been lucky to have worked with some geniuses in my life. I think a genius is someone who can do things that are much harder for an ordinary person in a shorter amount of time with more ease. One of the characteristics of genius is that they can absorb information much quicker, so they’re more open to suggestions and collaboration. They’re also not afraid of saying “I don’t know.” In our world of television, you see a lot of very small people with very big egos, so it’s very good to work with someone who is a big person with a small ego. [Jon] was very open to my suggestions and to new ideas, and that was true of working with all of us. He told people it was his first film and that he did not know many things. He told people he needed help to portray his vision on the screen. He wasn’t controlling. Plus he’s a very funny guy, and it was a very difficult shoot. It was during Ramadan, we didn’t have that much money, it was really hot, and the production company we were working with was not very transparent with its employees. There were lots of dissatisfied crew members, and Jon had to just humor and entertain them by being Jon Stewart. He learned a few words of Arabic and basically did standup in Arabic.

What was your experience with the filming?

Basically what happened was when I came out of prison, I went on The Daily Show, I became friendly with Jon, and then we got together in January 2010. He wanted to be the executive producer of the film. We were not thinking about him writing or directing. We approached different writers, different directors, but people were busy, they wanted a lot of money, they were doing James Bond or Mission: Impossible. They were just not interested in a story like that. So the book came out in 2011, and Jon finally said f*ck it, we can’t wait anymore. We had to tell the story because it’s timely. So he said we should work on it together. We started working on the script. He would send me drafts, I would make suggestions. We were in constant exchange, and it was a very close operation. And then the directing of the film came from the same experience. I was on set almost every day except for a week where I had to go back to London.

Jon Stewart on the set of Rosewater. Photo Credit: Laith Majal/Open Road Films.
Jon Stewart on the set of Rosewater. Photo Credit: Laith Majal/Open Road Films.

How accurately does the film portray what happened to you?

The film is an adaptation of the book, which was an adaptation of real life. It has a film structure, composite characters, and a different narrative arc from the book. It also has a different narrative arc from reality. But I think the film is true to the story. The reality might be different, but of course in a film reality is not that important. It’s the truth that’s important. I think the film is telling a universal truth about myself, about many journalists around the world who are going through the same thing every day. It’s based on my story, it’s inspired by my story, but it’s really not about me as a person. It’s about many people.

In an interview with Stewart, you talked about the incarceration and interrogation being toned down a bit for the film. Do you wish it had not been changed as such?

No. What we wanted to do from the beginning of the film was show a universal reality. What you see in the film is a universal reality. In many authoritarian nations and in many dictatorships, they institutionalize torture and interrogation. The “torture porn” you see in other films or what you see ISIS doing are anomalies. They are not sustainable. What you see in this film is an everyday reality in Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia. It doesn’t matter where they are, American allies or not. These are the governments that want to suppress information. We really tried to avoid torture porn as much as possible. We also wanted the film to communicate to as many people as possible. I really don’t want it to be called a film about torture because that’s really not what it’s about. Torture is a very small part of it. It’s really about hope, resilience, the power of journalism, family, and culture. That was the most important thing from the beginning for both Jon and myself.

What, if anything, do you think the film adds to the interpretation of your experiences that maybe the memoir wasn’t able to get across?

I think the film provides a new platform and a bigger audience. But it’s part of the same process. When I was in prison in the interrogation rooms, I wanted to write a book. I wanted to tell the story to as many people as possible. I came out, I wrote a Newsweek article, I did interviews with The Daily Show, 60 Minutes, etc. So that was part of the process, and then I wrote the book and now the film has come out. The film gives a different level to the story. Of course it’s all due to Jon Stewart’s passion for the project, his establishment in this country, and the fact that some individuals can make a change. A film like Rosewater would never happen without a strong character like Jon Stewart pursuing it.

There are moments of humor in the film. What do you think about that added levity?

It’s not added. It’s from the book and based on the experience that I had in prison. It’s just that what I experienced in prison was very Kafkaesque. It was something that, in hindsight of course it’s quite ridiculous. When you’re in prison in a dark interrogation room, it may not be funny because you’re blindfolded and beaten. But when you see someone who thinks he has a monopoly over a truth or someone who thinks that by carrying the wishes of the Supreme Leader, he can go to Heaven and have sex with 72 virgins, you just think it’s ridiculous. It’s not something I fabricated. It’s something that they do. Today I just read the news that they are going to sentence people who walk their dogs in public spaces in Iran to 74 lashes. That’s just ridiculous. I mean, it’s sad to see someone being lashed for walking a dog, but they do that. President Rohani went on CNN and told Christiane Amanpour that nobody is arrested in Iran because of journalism. That’s ridiculous, and it’s a lie. When you live that reality, it’s not very funny.

The film has such a powerful title and meaning. Does the scent of rosewater still have the same effect on you?

I never liked rosewater to start with, to tell the truth (laughter). It started at an early age. You see that in the beginning of the film. I go to a shrine with my sister. I had very devout, religious aunts, and they used to take me to the shrines in Iran. You go through the shrine, and people take off their shoes. There’s the smell of leather and sweat, and they try to neutralize it by spraying rosewater. So you smell leather, sweat, and rosewater. That was just the worst kind of smell. I didn’t go to any shrines again until I had to go to one as a journalist.

Kim Bodnia and Gael García Bernal in Rosewater. Photo Credit: Nasser Kalaji/Open Road Films.
Kim Bodnia and Gael García Bernal in Rosewater. Photo Credit: Nasser Kalaji/Open Road Films.

*You seem pretty fearless, obviously. But was there anything about doing this film that made you nervous, be it getting the story out accurately or having to relive everything you experienced?

No. It was all part of the process. Some people ask me whether it opens old wounds, and I say no, it heals them. I think being by being silent about a traumatic experience like this, you allow it to become deeper and to hurt you much more. If you talk about it, you can heal yourself. You can think about it. If there is any anger or negativity, you can supplement it into something more positive.

One of the things that is really striking about Rosewater is how it portrays the isolation experience. There are scenes where you are dancing to music, but then that’s gone when you’re in solitary confinement. What is it like being deprived of music in this sense?

They sentence you to solitary confinement in order to deprive you of all your senses, especially in organized institutions like Evin Prison [where I was incarcerated] in Iran. These are really clean, strong solid buildings that they put you in. So you’re deprived of all your senses. You cannot see, hear, or touch anything except for the four walls around you. You become isolated, you become delusional, you become suicidal. I think that’s one of the reasons Jon wanted to concentrate on the isolation in solitary confinement was because of that. Also in terms of the set design and camera work, it was a harsh contrast to the beginning of the film. You see a lot of color, a lot of young people, a lot of different faces. Then you have these isolated grey and blue scenes.

*We often hear of people in this nation claiming they’re losing their rights, be it through gun control, voter ID laws, restrictions on speech, etc. This isn’t to say there are no rights worth advocating for in this nation, but in this film, we see a very difficult struggle for rights. For instance, we see Iranians being massacred in the streets for rioting and demanding a recount after a clearly unfair election. What can you say about this difference in what each nation calls rights, for journalists or for regular people?

Those are two totally different situations. Someone was telling me that David Sanger from the New York Times said the Obama Administration has been the worst administration for journalists. And yes, it might be true that the Obama Administration has been the worst for journalists in the U.S., but in Iran or in China, David Sanger would be an incarcerated journalist. He wouldn’t be invited to Meet the Press, he wouldn’t be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to write a book and complain about the government. So I think that is the main difference. Here you have a system of checks and balances, you have a freer press, and you have more opportunity to criticize the government. Of course the United States is not a perfect country – although Sean Hannity tries to say otherwise – and I think there are many things that can be improved. What people want in this country is to be regarded as citizens of the country. Even if a lot of people unfortunately don’t exercise their voting rights in this country, they want to be regarded as people with one vote. That is something that Iranians want, that Egyptians want, that Chinese want. I think that’s a universal phenomenon that people want to be regarded as citizens of a country with citizen rights rather than subjects of the country. That’s why you had the revolution here hundreds of years ago. You wanted to be citizens. And I think because of social media, because of the digital revolution and satellite television, people can communicate more this day in age. So people in Egypt, in China, in Russia, in Iran, they see things that people have in the U.S. and in other countries, and they want that. And it’s the same thing in the U.S. People look at Scandinavian countries they see health systems in those countries and they want that here. Well, some people do.

Have you ever considered going into teaching?

I have been somehow a teacher for the past 10 years. I’ve had a lot of workshops. I’ve worked with BBC Workshops and documentary workshops. And I do lectures.

But nothing permanent as in at a university?

No. Why? (laughter)

How are you hoping this will mobilize and inspire people?

I think it’s a very inspirational film, especially for young people because they can realize the power of media, the power of what they can do. I think social media and digital media in general have democratized information. The information here, which was the monopoly of a small group of people, now is available to everyone.  You can use digital resources to follow Shaggy or One Direction (laughter). Or, you can use them to create some change in your society, in your school, in your municipality, in your city, in your country, in the world. I think one of the things that the film shows is how powerful journalism can be and how valuable information can be. It’s also about the changing nature of journalism. Professional journalism is in decline because citizen journalism is on the rise. Citizen journalists are becoming much more powerful than professional journalists.

*What do you want to say to aspiring journalists about working in Iran or covering Middle Eastern politics in general?

I think what the film shows is the decline of professional journalism and the rise of citizen journalism, so I think that’s something that all aspiring journalists have to consider. It’s much more difficult to make a living. You have to be more of a multimedia journalist now. You can no longer just rely on your pen or your keyboard, but you have to know how to use camera and sound. Also it’s very important to know about the cultural context of where you’re going and what you’re covering. But even if you know all that, as with what happens to the character in the film, that cannot always help you. Someone somewhere can have some sort of scenario for you, can trap you, and can put you through that.

Can we expect any further written works from you?

I have a few projects that have come out because as someone whose name is known to many people now, it’s my responsibility to help many other journalists in my situation. I have a project called Journalism for Change, and we have a website called IranWire for citizen journalists in Iran. We also have Journalism is Not a Crime, Education is Not a Crime, and soon we will have Happiness is Not a Crime for the kids who were arrested for singing the song “Happy.” Unfortunately, the Iranian government has provided us with a lot of material for projects.

Would you consider this film to be a piece of journalism?

I think so. I think the film at its heart is about journalism and is also made by someone who is very trusted in journalism, and the most trusted man on American television (laughter).

Catch Rosewater in theaters on November 14th.

*Denotes a question asked by Emertainment Monthly.


Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *