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On Sunday afternoon, Jon Stewart and Maziar Bahari arrived at Georgetown University with a copy of their film, Rosewater. The advanced screening, sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Iranwire.com, and Open Road, provided an early look at Stewart’s directorial debut.

It was a packed house, with students lining up as early as 4:00 a.m. to wait in line. They were treated to a powerful and entertaining film as well as a chance to ask Stewart and Bahari, whom the film is based on, questions.

The process of creating the movie

The genesis of the film can be traced to before Bahari was imprisoned. While he was covering the 2009 elections, he did a short interview with Jason Jones for The Daily Show. This segment was used by the Iranian government as evidence that Bahari was a spy. After Bahari’s release, he appeared on The Daily Show to talk about his experience, and wrote a memoir. Stewart and Bahari had become friends and “frustrated with the glacial pace of movie making [they] decided if [they] wanted to see the film made in [their] lifetimes” they would do it themselves.

Stewart on casting

Two famous Iranian actresses, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Golshifteh Farahani, appear in the film. Stewart felt it was really important for them to be in the movie.

“Originally when Maziar and I were talking about it, I was very much a purist. ‘Maziar, I see this film, it must be done in Farsi. It must use only Iranians who have been in prison to show the authenticity.’ And then Maziar would say ‘Don’t you want people to see it?’ So in some respects I had to own my own in-authenticity as a director. My ear is not attuned to the nuances. If you are Iranian, this film will, almost by definition, will be simplistic and reductive of your culture. But for the purposes of this and to give it a universal aspect so that you can’t just dismiss it as the singular atrocities of one eccentric regime. These are the type of things that are being committed to journalists and against journalists and against citizens all around the world. And in the United States we too use the levers of powers to suppress information. And we too keep people in solitary confinement. And I felt as though with [Shohreh Aghdashloo] and [Golshifteh Farahani], the women in the film are so strong, they are such the center of it, the foundation. If the heart and soul of that film could be infused with that spirit it would give me more license to own a quiet in-authenticity around the rest of it.”

Stewart on shooting in Jordan

“Obviously a lot of this is finance. We didn’t have a ton of money so we couldn’t do it in New York. We couldn’t even split. The original idea was to go on location for a little bit. We had to find a location that could stand in for the many different parts of Iran that we might want to experience. So it is really a confluence of how much money you have, the types of exteriors you are looking for, the type of place that could give you the access – we had to shoot inside a working prison. [A location] that gave us the broadest ability to accomplish all the things we needed. So it was a cost-benefit analysis, and Amman came out.”

Stewart on the transition from The Daily Show to Rosewater

“It’s an oddly similar process. It’s not alien to what we do every day. I think the most difficult part of directing is not having an audience. An audience will very clearly and immediate tell you when you stink. And it’s nice to have because you know that something is wrong. When you are out there you don’t have that. You spend months in a darkroom alone with your editor fumbling around. But the actual process of collaboration and deconstructing a narrative, trying to reflect your intention given whatever tools you have, cinematic or television is a very similar process. And that’s what’s so fun about making it. Maziar was with us the entire time, the entire time we did the scripting process. It is an enormously collaborative effort. We were making a film about something terrible that someone endured, but we were making a film about it. So our experience could celebrate it and we could create an environment that was collaborative and light.”

Stewart on the limitations of film

“You always have to look at the limitations of whatever form you are doing. Maziar’s book is an incredibly compelling memoir. It’s his impression of the realities of his time. The film is even one more reflection and step removed from that. It’s then a reflection of his reflection. So I think you have to narrow your focus in a way. If I look at what I left on the cutting room floor, it’s a lot of those extraneous flavors and colors that don’t lend himself to the direct narrative.”

Stewart on journalism

“This is an ode to those, and especially now, as technology has democratized the idea of those who can bear witness and those who can’t, it’s going to spread out. And as news organizations cut back funding on infrastructure, so many journalists now are taking it upon themselves without protection, without any infrastructure to fall back on should something terrible happen to them, and trying to capture these moments. And that’s in some ways, the entire premise of the film, which is, think about the expense and time that these governments are putting into to suppress someone like Maziar, a professional journalist and someone trying to do their job. And at the end some nine year old with a cellphone says ‘Fuck it, I’ll do it’. And that’s the type of thing we are trying to express, an admiration of the ideals of those who put themselves in that situation with no gain other than to bear witness.”

Political commentary

The film is political. As expected from Stewart, the film satirizes aspects of the Iranian government, particularly through the portrayal of Rosewater, Bahari’s interrogator. Rosewater, and by extension the Iranian government, is obsessed with two things; sex and Jews.

Stewart comments “Many regimes I think, authoritarian regimes and regimes all over the world, enemies are very convenient ways to not be accountable for your behavior or the conditions of your people. So you may say that Jews and sex are convenient sort of obsessions for people in these authoritarian regimes in the way that we use Muslims, sometimes, in this country as a convenient enemy to avoid dealing with certain things. Each society has its own ways of playing to its worst base elements and controlling the governments and the people through these types of sanctions. So it’s a conversation to a larger point, which is can we have peace through these things when the powers that be gain so much from having these other entities as enemies. The leaders of Iran gain a great deal having American as a monolithic enemy or having Israel as a monolithic enemy. And the leaders of America and Israel gain a great deal by doing the same thing to Iran. How do we break this?”

Stewart on freedom of information in America

“For what I do, the pressure are not really of that same quality. There are many different forms of intimidation. They have prosecuted whistleblowers and have included journalists in those criminal indictments. When the government calls a journalist and asks them not to print something. The Obama team calls people as says don’t print this. Although they may leak something. Also, there is the development of this new sort of deep state that exists in the United States. The security apparatus formed after 9/11 that includes the NSA and CIA and no one quite knows who its accountable to. But they are following everyone on the internet and following people. So those are forms of intimidation. Are they ham-handed and caricatured and cartoonish, or as draconian as pulling people off the streets and arrested? They’re not. But it is a layer of pressure that is being placed on those who have information. Hopefully what is taken from the film is the unsustainability of these apparatuses. The idea that when you spend so much money building these apparatuses of suppression they become far more damaging to the state than any piece of information. So hopefully there is a feeling of optimism and that’s a long ways. But that’s the intention.”

Bahari and Stewart on the impact of social media

Bahari: “People use social media in order to gather information, share information with each other, and also to mobilize themselves. And I think the combination of these two phenomena, millions of people came to the streets for the first time since 1979. And the way that they use social media really scared the government. And one of the reasons people were arrested and suffered so much during that short period was because this government’s fear. It was a knee-jerk reaction to that.”

Stewart: “Don’t confuse the message with the media. In the same way that the printing press was – in the Revolutionary War, Thomas Paine made pamphlets and everyone was like, ‘how do we stop this new technology? We understand how to stop town criers but this guy?’. This cat and mouse game between authoritarian impulse and expression that has gone on forever. And it’s just a new narrative. The difference, is as it democratizes it, those regimes have to extend themselves further to suppress it. So it is at more a cost to themselves, it is more unwieldy. But also, don’t confuse bringing people to the streets with filling power vacuums that occur when all these things fall down. In Iran, they want democracy without revolution. They see in the neighborhood the chaos and violence that is coming from these power vacuums. So they are looking to reform it more incrementally, and not with that approach that, we get everyone in the streets, we are going to topple the regime, and then we are all going to meet in a drum circle and everything will be fine. It doesn’t work like that. The civic institutions, I think it’s the building of those that is most important.”

The film’s impact on western perceptions of Iran

Stewart hoped that the film would show the “nuances and complexities in Iranian society.” He said that “the general tanner of the dialogue between the two countries has been that ‘you are the axis of evil’ and ‘you are the great Satan’. Hopefully there is a conversation now about the incredible similarities between the two countries”

Bahari was adamant that the film should show a more complete image of Iran. “The first part of the film shows the new generation of Iranians, people who are open-minded and motivated. And these are not rich kids from North Tehran. These are poor kids, that are very religious, some of them coming from traditional families. They are getting to know the rest of the world better and they want to have this cultural exchange with the rest of the world. For the ‘bomb bomb’ people, and people in general I think it is important to understand that when you are bombing a country you are bombing regular people and that could be a great setback for the reform movement and hurt those young people.”

When asked about the impact of the film on US – Iranian relations Stewart responded

“I think that for those that don’t want a deal, they will use anything as an excuse to sabotage it, on both sides. Will this be something they use as convenience, I don’t know. In the same way someone could say ‘You killed Crossfire.’ No I didn’t, that was a shitty show. In the same way you can say that the interview that Maziar Bahari with the Daily Show that was used as evidence means he should not have done it. You cannot control what idiots will weaponize and to censure yourself with their ignorance would be a mistake. This movie demonizes no one. This movie says what the Iranian government to Maziar Bahari and presents the complexities of Iranian society, hopefully in a more complex and nuanced way than anything Western audiences have seen in the US. So I am very comfortable with the portrayal that is out there. And if that is used to sabotage a nuclear deal. God bless.”

The film’s impact on Iran

Bahari hoped that the film would be seen by the Iranian government.

“I think the film shows how ridiculous some people in the government are. My real hope is that some people in the Iranian government who are not that rational, or even the rational people in the Iranian government, watch this and see their actions and how ridiculous they are, how brutal they are. And understand that they are not only hurting their opposition or their critics and other people. They are undermining their own position, undermining their own authority through being so irrational and ridiculous.”

Bahari on having any regrets about his actions.

Jon Stewart’s name may overshadow Maziar Bahari, but Bahari’s story should be the focus of any dialogue surrounding the film. He endured 118 days in prison on false charges.

“In terms of what I did before my imprisonment, I don’t regret anything. I was very cautious. I worked in Iran for 12 years as a journalist and filmmaker. I always respected the laws. I knew the government’s sensitivities. For example, I never reported on the situation of ethnic minorities in Iran because I knew the government was really sensitive about it. I never traveled to Israel because I knew the government was sensitive about it. So I did everything by book. But they had a different plan for me. They would have arrested me regardless of what happened. Also, in prison, I don’t have any regrets. They wanted me to name names. The pressure on us, on me especially, was that they wanted me to implicate certain reporters in the regime, and other people. So what I did in my forced confession on television, I repeated some bullshit stuff, things that people don’t believe in, and that didn’t really implicate anyone.”


Bahari on his experience in solitary confinement.

“What happens in solitary confinement is that they deprive you of all your senses. You cannot see anything except the walls around you, what you touch are the walls, the walls are so thick you cannot hear anything. So in that isolated situation you become delusional, and sometimes suicidal of course. And the only contact you have with the rest of the world is your interrogator, who tries to manipulate you, who threatens you. Since about 10 years ago I think the Iranian government does something they think is smart. They send the interrogators to peoples houses to arrest them. And when they are out of the prison they also meet for the last time, in my case it was the last time since I left Iran, they meet and threaten them not to talk about the situation. When I went to prison, on the first day, they didn’t say it was your interrogator, or your ‘specialist’, they say it your owner is waiting for you. So that person owns you. So in that situation what you have to do, if you are a religious person like most of the prisoners in Iran, you cite the verses of the Qu’ran, like what people around me were doing. Or if you are not a religious person, like me, you have to tap into your inner resources, members of your family, culture. Sometimes the situation was really unbearable and I couldn’t.”

In sum, the situations depicted in Rosewater is not one singular event. Journalists and activists face dangers that we are not aware of, and authoritarian regimes continue to oppress their people. Rosewater attempts to reveal some of that experience, and tries to honor those that work to provide us with information every day.

Featured image courtesy of Rosewater’s Facebook Page.