IGNORANCE led to the arrest and torture of Maziar Bahari in Iran. His plight, told in Jon Stewart’s film Rosewater, is being repeated around the world, the journalist tells Alistair Harkness
When Iranian Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari left his London home in the middle of 2009 to cover Iran’s impending elections for Newsweek, he couldn’t have anticipated that he would become embroiled in one of the most absurd and unsettling stories to emerge from the ensuing chaos. But that’s exactly what happened when his brief participation in a sketch for The Daily Show led to his arrest and subsequent incarceration for 118 days in Tehran’s Evin prison.
“They threw some outlandish charges against me. It was really Kafka-esque,” says Bahari, whose surreal and disturbing ordeal now forms the basis for Rosewater, the directorial debut of The Daily Show’s host, Jon Stewart. “It was as if I was a character in The Trial.”
Tortured, interrogated and at one point forced to falsely confess to spying on Iranian television, Bahari initially thought he’d been arrested because he’d been on the streets of Tehran filming the protests and violence that erupted in the wake of incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s allegedly rigged re-election.
The reasons, however, were far stranger. His interrogator, a man whom he came to know as Rosewater on account of his scent, claimed he had damning video evidence of him talking about Iran with an American secret agent. Said American – dressed like a Hollywood stereotype of a spy (checkered kaffiyeh, khakis, dark glasses) – was actually comedian Jason Jones, a “correspondent” for The Daily Show who had interviewed Bahari for a satirical sketch about American attitudes to Iran in the run up to the elections.
In addition to being interviewed, Bahari had provided The Daily Show with some local contacts to help with a sketch humorously interrogating George Bush’s reductive description of Iran as part of the “axis of evil”. When Rosewater started playing the clip – which features Stewart as well – it dawned on him that he’d been arrested because the authorities believed a fake news show broadcast on Comedy Central in America was real. “I did not believe they could be this stupid,” he says.
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Exposing such stupidity – and the ignorance that fuels it – is at the heart of Rosewater. During the arrest sequence, for instance, Bahari, who is played by Gael García Bernal, is taken to task by the authorities for the pornographic nature of his possessions, which include DVDs of The Sopranos, Pasolini’s Teorema, and a copy of the movie magazine Empire. He’s also quizzed by Rosewater (played by Kim Bodnia, star of TV’s The Bridge) about his relationship with one Anton Chekov, whose work Bahari had quoted on his Facebook page.
“They have a very narrow-minded view of the world,” says Bahari of the Iranian authorities who held him without trial. “That’s why they have such a fascination with sex. As you see in the film, having sexuality or eroticism as an object of art is not for them. For them, sex is about procreating and that’s it. Whenever they see something that has a little bit of flesh in it – they’re like: ‘It’s a porno’. They’re ignorant and their view of the West is very similar to the view that some westerners have of the East. They think the West is like a scene out of a pornographic film. They think pornos are documentaries, really.”
Bahari’s cultural memories, together with his memories of his family, were crucial to his survival. Prison in Iran, “especially solitary confinement” he says, is designed to break people through sensory depravation. “You’re blindfolded so you can’t see anything. You can’t hear anything because the walls are solid and thick. You can’t taste anything because all the food is like cardboard. You can’t smell anything because the cell is regularly scrubbed down. And there’s nothing to touch – just marble and stone. So in order to survive you have to tap your inner resources.
“And your inner resources,” he elaborates, “are the experiences you have in your life: culture, art, love for your family, your conversations, your friends. The richer the life you’ve led, the better you can survive. That was the real difference I saw between myself and my interrogators and their bosses.”
If those things helped him get through prison, his journalistic training helped him put some necessary distance between himself and the dramatisation of his personal ordeal on the big screen. As he says, he’s worked in Iraq and Afghanistan and has seen a lot of death and mayhem in front of him. “I wasn’t doing gardening journalism,” he quips. Watching scenes depicting the effect his incarceration had on his family, however, was a different matter, not least because his wife was pregnant at the time (their daughter was born just days after he was released) and his mother had already lived through the imprisonment of his father and his sister during the respective regimes of the Shah and the Ayatollah Khomeini. “After seeing the finished film three or four times with audiences, I still get emotional when I see those family scenes.”
Bahari doesn’t really view the film as his story, though, even though it’s based on his memoir, Then They Came for Me. “It’s a version of my story,” he says. “It’s really the story of what thousands of people around the world, including my colleagues in Iran, go through on a daily basis. What you see in the film is something that people in Egypt, in China, in Russia, in Iran of course, are going through over and over again. Journalists are becoming targets because governments are finding that the free flow of information can really undermine their control.”
Stewart’s involvement is one of the things that helped make the story more universal. Still, even with the centrality of The Daily Show to his story, Bahari hadn’t thought of its host as the natural helmer for the project. “And Jon was not thinking about it either,” he confirms. “But after a couple of years, Jon said, ‘You know what? Let’s just do it ourselves. I’m going to write the script.’ So I started helping him with that and the idea of directing it came from that experience: he had a real emotional investment in the story and didn’t want to turn it over to someone who might change it.”
Having studied film alongside political science at university, Bahari was under no illusion that Stewart would change details of his story to make it work as a movie. “I think Jon made my character much weaker than I really was,” he says.
Did having Gael García Bernal play him make up for this? “Yeah, exactly,” laughs Bahari, “though he’s not as good a dancer as me.” He’s referring to a key scene in which Bernal imagines the music of Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me To the End of Love playing in his head while he dances in his cell. It’s a scene designed to symbolize Bahari’s aforementioned belief in the value of culture to his survival and it’s that celebration of culture (and family) that Bahari would like people to take from the film. It’s one of reasons he refused to stay silent upon his release, even when threats were made against his life. “I have to lead a normal life,” he surmises. “That’s the way I can defeat my captors. If I was afraid I would still be in prison.”
• Rosewater screens on 21 and 22 February, as part of the Glasgow Film Festival, www.glasgowfilm.org