UTG INTERVIEW: Iranian Journalist / Writer Maziar Bahari Talks ‘Rosewater,’ Jon Stewart, And Risky Journalism

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Rosewater, the new film directed by The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart, is based upon a real man’s incarceration and torturing for reporting objectively during a dark time in Iran in June of 2009. Maziar Bahari is that man and UTG got to sit down with him to talk about the film, its production, and his relationship with Stewart among other things. Maziar is portrayed by Gael García Bernal in the new film. Rosewater is also based upon Bahari’s book, Then They Came For Me.

For a bit of background, Maziar Bahari is an Iranian journalist who was detained in June of 2009 in Iran and forced to confess that he was covering illegal activities and illegal demonstrations which promoted a revolution against the supreme ruler of Iran. The interrogators even used a Daily Show segment against him, as Maziar appeared on a satirical segment about Western Spies with Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones. Rosewater was the title given to the main interrogator involved with Bahari’s forced confession.

You can read our full interview below.

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UTG: How did Jon Stewart approach you about the film and was he the first one?

Maziar Bahari: Basically what happened was I came out of prison, wrote 50,000 words in about 20 days and that came about the 10,000 word Newsweek article. I went on The Daily Show in November 2009 and then I became friendly with Jon. We started talking about doing a film in January of 2010. I had just started to write the book then we started talking about him being a producer or executive producer. We approached different writers or directors, Oscar-winning or Oscar-nominated ones. People were not interested or they were busy or they wanted a lot of money. I went back on The Daily Show in June of 2011 to promote the book and in October, Jon just said, “Fuck it, we can not wait for these people to get back to us, I’m going to write the film.” We started writing the film together from that month and directing the film came organically from that process. Jon had invested so much time, energy, and emotion into a story that he didn’t want to finish and give to a third person.

UTG: Jon seemed to bring a real positive sense of humor to such a dour subject.

Bahari: The sense of humor is based on the book, actually. What you see there is what’s in the book. It’s not anything invented by Jon. That’s because the actions of these regimes is just ridiculous. Whenever you think you have the monopoly on truth or whenever you think you can go do something to get into paradise without knowing what’s there, that’s crazy. All I did in the book was transcribe the idiotic things my interrogator was telling me.

UTG: Did you ever think that another director might not capture that humor or try to get rid of it?

Bahari: Maybe, yeah. I’m sure another director would make it more like torture porn that we see these days. I think a lot of films these days portray imprisonment or political suppression as torture porn. It’s not really my taste.

UTG: What was your relationship with the Iranian regime before you got taken?

Bahari: I didn’t have a relationship but I worked as a professional journalist in Iran for 12 years. I left Iran when I was 18 and then came back. I knew the regime’s sensitivities; I knew what they didn’t like. I tried to work within the framework of the law as much as possible, but in 2009 something happened that took everyone by surprise. One was that people found this ‘space’ for people to come out and fight for their rights as citizens of the country; they didn’t want to be regarded as the subjects of the leader or king. Also, the advent of social media helped. At this time, Google Plus was not invented yet so it wasn’t quite successful. Those two people who use Google Plus would be struggling to make a change. People were able to mobilize themselves through Twitter and Facebook, which really took the government by surprise, and the people as well. In Iran in 2009, it was the first time that Twitter was used for a social movement. After that, you saw Egypt, Ukraine, Hong Kong, Brazil, and Ferguson doing the same thing. The regime really panicked after the June 2009 demonstrations. All those incarcerations were just a knee-jerk reaction to that movement.

UTG: The vision of Iran that you had in the film felt so deep-rooted in the culture. Was there any problem with maintaining that sense of realism?

Bahari: That’s why I trusted Jon Stewart with this movie. I trusted his politics, I had been a Daily Show fan since year 2000. When we talked about doing the film, there was a mutual trust. I trusted his political vision and he trusted mine in terms of the story. We worked very closely on that and I was on the set every day to make sure everything was authentic as possible. Some of the scenes that you see in the film were shot in Iran by some of my friends and they sent them over to us. I think it’s a miracle that a film like this has been done in the US, especially with these stupid adventure films like Spider-Man. You just don’t think like these kinds of films are made anymore.

UTG: What was it like returning home after incarceration?

Bahari: It was very difficult, especially because my wife was pregnant and she was going to give birth in six days. I think the fact that I wanted to write the book while I was in prison really helped me. It helped me to tolerate everything that was going on in my life at the time. When I talk about my experience now, it’s not like opening old wounds. Instead, it’s more like healing them. Before the incarceration, I wasn’t one to express myself. When I came out of prison, everyone knew my mother’s name, my sister’s name, and my wife’s name. So, I said “fuck it” and went as public as possible. I think more people should be more open about their lives and ideas.

UTG: I loved the message that Rosewater was sending about how the will is uncontrollable and unbreakable. Did you have a specific message or theme that you wanted to send to the viewer?

Bahari: There are so many different messages. When I see the film with completely different audiences, it’s interesting to see the different messages people get from the film. What I would like people to take away from the film is what journalists are going through on a daily basis across the world to bring the news to people. Also, I think the film is an appreciation of culture and family. Even though the film is mainly about two male characters, women have been identifying with the film.

UTG: In the film, the character based upon you said that Americans and Iranians aren’t that different. Do you think that is still true today?

Bahari: Yeah, the two nations have a lot in common. Historically, Iranians really appreciated what Americans did for Iran, prior to 1953. This was back when The Soviet Union occupied the province of Iran and President Truman called Stalin telling him to withdraw troops. That was very important for Iranians, this relationship. In terms of terrorism, drug trafficking, and the stability in the Middle East, Iranians and Americans have a lot in common. The Revolutionary guards in Iran are making a lot of money from smuggling and sanctions. There are people in Washington D.C. who are part of these think tanks and they’re making a lot of money and building power through fear mongering.

UTG: Was the public view in Iran of you altered after you got out? How does it compare from then to now?

Bahari: They really wanted me to admit that I was a spy and name names of people that were in my network. In my forced confession, I just went through this diatribe that western media is bad and that the supreme ruler of Iran is good without compromising anyone or without admitting. That’s why the interrogator was unhappy with my confession. These forced confessions aren’t believable. They are just like these sadistic shows that many governments from around the world put on for their own consumption and entertainment. Those forced confessions have become a way of governments to entertain themselves; it’s a game for them.

UTG: With forced confessions, is that a norm in Iranian society?

Bahari: It’s not a norm in society, it’s a norm for the government to put people through this. Because of that, a lot of people just don’t believe it [forced confessions]. It’s counter-productive; it makes people to make fun of the government for when they do forced confessions. These days, they arrested some kids a few months ago for dancing to Pharrell’s “Happy.” They put them through forced confessions, saying that there were seditious elements for dancing to that song. When these regimes do something like forced confessions and see results, they continue to do it. It’s human nature to not change something if it’s working. People like the status quo.

UTG: What I admired about Rosewater was that it was structured like a journalistic exposé, throwing out facts in the most objective way possible and letting people draw their conclusions. Can you talk about that?

Bahari: One of the most important things that I wanted Jon to bring to the story was to humanize the negative characters, like Rosewater. He’s a human being, not a monster. He’s someone with feelings; he has a job to do. I think Kim Bodnia who portrayed him did an amazing job portraying the real-life man through his eyes. You see inside Kim’s eyes, layers of information, emotion, and humanity. It makes the character much more believable.

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UTG: Did you help Jon at all with the actual production of the film?

Bahari: We worked together on the script and I wrote the book from a filmmaker’s perspective. When I was in prison, I was thinking about devising different scenes and writing about these locations, like a filmmaker. It was a very close collaboration. I wouldn’t be here promoting the film if it wasn’t.

UTG: So you were like a co-director?

Bahari: No no no, we cannot say that [laughs]. There’s always one director of a film.

UTG: What would you want the world to know about Iran that they may not already know?

Bahari: I would like them to have a more nuanced image of Iran. I would like people to understand that in the country, sons and daughters go to war. It’s not just bad people. When you’re going to war with Iraq, you’re not bombing Sadaam Hussein. You’re bombing children, young people, women; you’re bombing your own allies. In this film, we tried to present a more nuanced image of Iran, to present Iranians better. Yes Iran is the country of the supreme leader, Rosewater, and those thugs but Iran is a country of people that you see in the beginning of the film.

UTG: In the future, what can you see yourself focusing on in your career?

Bahari: Whatever I have done since the beginning of my career is about social issues and social consciousness. It’s been a learning process with each film and article and I want people to learn new things through those mediums. I think doubting is one of the most important lessons. Whenever you don’t doubt that whatever you think is right or wrong, that’s ridiculous. Doubting and creating these questions about social issues is what I like to do.

Rosewater is in limited release now and arrives in Boston this Friday! Make sure to tune in again for our review that arrives on the same day.

Sam Cohen

Sam Cohen is that guy you can't have a conversation with without bringing up Michael Mann. He is also incapable of separating himself from his teenage angst (looking at you, Yellowcard). Read on as he tries to formulate words about movies!
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