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Interview with Journalist Maziar Bahari for Rosewater

Open Road Films: Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Maziar Bahari in "Rosewater"Being held captive and accused of being a spy is what the vast majority of us will get to experience only through watching movies and television shows. Most of us probably believe that it’s a scary ordeal, but Maziar Bahari knows how it feels first hand. As many of us know, Bahari was arrested by Iranian officials, then held and interrogated for 118 days before finally being released. After being released, he decided to write a book that’s now been turned into Rosewater, a movie about his time locked down.

You would imagine that these events would change the lives and thoughts of anyone, but when I got to sit down with him, I was able to find out just how it changed him. It’s safe to say that he used this experience in a way that’s positive for his mental well-being while showing him another side of life and the value of his own freedom. He spoke on that stuff, but he also shared his thoughts and views on a number of other things. Below is much of what was spoken about.

How Rosewater came to be:
What happened was that I came out of prison, I wrote about fifty thousand words in about twenty days. Then out of that fifty thousand words, we had about a ten thousand word Newsweek article. I went on The Daily Show in November 2009 or maybe the first of December 2009, then I became friends with Jon and we started talking about doing a film in January 2010. I had just started to write the book and then we started to talk about doing the film. He wanted to be the producer or the executive producer. We approached different writers, different directors; Oscar-winning writers and directors. And people were not interested or they were busy or wanted a lot of money to work on that. I was writing the book, I had these monthly meetings with Jon, we were talking on the phone, we were exchanging notes, and email, and the book came out in June of 2011. That’s when I went on The Daily Show again to promote the book. And then in October 2011 or November 2011, Jon just said ‘F*ck it. We can not wait for these people to get back to us. I’m going to write it, and let’s work on this together.’ We started to write the script together, and I think directing the film came organically from that process, because he spent so much time, energy and emotion in the story that he did not want to finish and it give to a third person. So it was very close relationship.

The sense of humor in the film as compared to the real life events he experienced:
The sense of humor is based on the book actually. What you see in the film is really in the book. Nothing that’s invented by Jon Stewart. Everything is in the book, and that’s because the actions of this regime are just ridiculous. And whenever you think that you have a monopoly on truth, whenever you think that you can do something and go to paradise without knowing what’s happening in paradise, because they’ve told you what’s happening in paradise, there’s seventy two virgins waiting for you. That’s just ridiculous, that’s crazy. All I did in the book was just transcribe the idiotic and moronic things my interrogator was telling me. Or the weird actions of the interrogator or other people in the regime.

How other directors aside from Jon Stewart would have handled Rosewater:
I’m sure another director would have made it like so many other imprisonment films or I think torture porn that we see these days. I think a lot of films portray imprisonment or political suppression tend to go toward torture porn which is not really my taste. Jon and I tried to avoid that.

Trusting Jon Stewart’s direction due to trusting his politics:
That’s why I trusted Jon Stewart with the movie, because I trusted his politics. I had been a Daily Show fan since the year 2000 and I knew his politics, but then when we talked about doing the film, their was a mutual trust. I trusted that his political instinct, his political vision. He trusted me with knowledge of the story and my collaboration, so we worked very closely on that. I was on the set everyday just to make sure what’s happening in the film is as authentic as possible. But of course, it’s a film and it can not be as authentic. And also some of the scenes that you see in the film were shot in Iran. They were shot by some of my friends and they sent it to us. I think it’s a miracle that a film like this has been done in the U.S., because with all these stupid Avengers films and Spiderman and all that. You just don’t think that this kind of film is made anymore.

Gael Garcia Bernal’s approach to portraying him in Rosewater:
We met before he decided to be in the film. We had lunch, we had a lot of conversations, we had dinners. I was on the set as I said, so you know, a lot of times he would just come to me for suggestions, but the thing is that he’s an actor and he’s acting a character. Whether it’s me or someone else, it’s just that he’s an actor. He read the book and read the script, so it was his interpretation of that character rather than emulating my moves or my accent or my dance moves. He can’t dance as well as I can just for the record. [Laughs]

Maziar Bahari’s views on forced confessions:
These forced confessions, they’re not believable. They’re just like shows. They’re just like sadistic shows that the Iranian government and many governments around the world put on for their own consumption and for their own entertainment in order to break people and in order to make an example of people for others. But because these people live in these really dark, small interrogation rooms and they just have nothing better to do except for beating people, humiliating people and insulting people, those forced confessions have also become their way of entertaining themselves as if it’s a game for them. It’s a norm for the government to put people through this and because of that, I think a lot of people just don’t believe it. But the government continues to do that. It’s counter productive. It makes people doubt the government much more. It makes people make fun of it. They arrested these kids for dancing to the song Happy from Pharrell and put them through forced confessions. It’s part of the system.

His relationship with the Iranian regime before his arrest and the effects of social media:
I did not have a relationship, but I worked as a journalist in Iran for twelve years, so I knew their sensitivities. I knew what they didn’t like people to write about and I tried to observe their sensitivities and 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 to come out and demonstrate for their rights as citizens of the country. They did not want to be seen as the subjects of “the supreme leader.” Also, think that with the advent of social media, namely Twitter and Facebook, unfortunately Google Plus was not invented at that time. Otherwise the movement would have been successful. Those two people who use Google Plus would really make a change. [Laughs] So, with the advent of social media, people were able to mobilize themselves through Facebook, Twitter – that really took the government by surprise. I was in Twitter headquarters two weeks ago and I was like in Iran in 2009 was the first time that Twitter was used for a social movement. After that, you saw in Egypt, Ukraine, Hong Kong, Brazil and Ferguson that people mobilize themselves. So, the regime really panicked after June 2009 demonstrations. All that suppression and those arrest and all those incarcerations and torture was just a knee-jerk reaction to that movement.

Adjusting to life back home in London after being released from prison in Iran:
It was very difficult, especially because my wife was pregnant and she was going to give birth within six days after I arrived in London. So, it was quite hectic, but I think the fact that I wanted to write the book when I was in prison and because of the fact that I had this objective and I started to write immediately; that really helped me. That really, really helped me to tolerate whatever was going on in my life at that time. And that was really satisfactory. When I talk about the issue now, and I talk about my experience in prison, it’s not as if it’s opening old wounds. It’s more like healing the old wounds, because it’s just a healing process to talk about this. Before this I didn’t express myself. I was a very, very private person. A lot of people didn’t know that my wife was pregnant, a lot of my friends. When I got arrested, I was always thinking whether my friends are more surprised that I’m arrested or that my wife is pregnant. I was very private, but when I came out of prison, I realized everyone knew my mother’s name, my wife’s name, my sister’s name, so I thought ‘F*ck it, I just have to go as public as possible. And it’s been very good actually. I think people have to be more open about their lives and their ideas.

The importance of humanizing all of the characters in Rosewater:
One of the most important things that attracted Jon to the story and that’s what I wanted to do, was to humanize even the negative characters in the story. Like “Rosewater,” he’s a human being. He’s not a monster. He’s someone with feelings, he’s someone with a family. He has a job that he has to do. I think Kim Bodnia, who portrays Rosewater, does an amazing job portraying that through eyes and through his emotional intelligence. You see in Kim’s eyes, layers of information and layers of emotion and humanity. It just makes the character so much more believable.

What he wants people to take from Rosewater:
What I really like people to take from the film is what journalists are going through on a daily basis in different parts of the world to bring the news to people. That is very important for me for people to understand. Also, I think the film is an appreciation of culture and family. That is very important as well.

The group of people who seem to identify with the film the most:
Even though the film is mainly about two male characters, it’s mainly women who identify with the film. Because I think the presence of three amazing characters: My mother, my wife and my sister in the film portrayed by three very good actresses. They are the heart and soul of the film. That is very important. This is something that really took me by surprise. Where ever we show the film, people just love the female characters.

The appreciation Iranians have for Americans and the similarities they share:
Iranians really appreciated what Americans did for Iran prior to 1953 when the Soviet Union had occupied one province of Iran and President Truman called Stalin for the Soviet troops to recall their forces in 1947. In terms of terrorism, drug trafficking, the instability in the Middle East, Iranians and Americans have a lot in common. But of course there interest groups in both Iran and the U.S. who do not want to see any kind of normalization, because normalization for them is changing the status quo. And people are usually happy with the status quo. They’re making a lot of money from the status quo. The Revolutionary Guards in Iran, they’re making a lot of money from smuggling, they’re making a lot of money from sanctions. They’re people in Washington who are part of this think tank and part of these different lobbies, and they’re making a lot of money and have a lot of political power through fear mongering and creating paranoia.

What he’s learned from his own career so far, and what he wants others to take away from it:
Whatever I have done since the beginning of my career – social issues and social consciousness – the fact that it’s been a learning process for me. Each film and each article, I’m learning new things and I like for people to learn new things through those films and those articles. Just to think more and to doubt more. I think doubting is one of the most important things that people can do. Whenever you don’t doubt yourself, or whenever you don’t doubt the fact that what you think is right is wrong, that’s funny, that’s ridiculous. So, I think doubting and creating different questions about different issues, that is the most important thing I’d like to do.

What he’d like Americans and the rest of the world to know about Iran and its current state:
I’d like them to have a more nuanced image of Iran. I like for them to understand when their country, their sons and daughters go to war with another nation, it is not just bad people. When you go to war with Iraq, you’re not going to war with Saddam Hussein. When you’re bombing Iraq, you’re not only bombing Saddam Hussein. You’re bombing Iraqis, you’re bombing children, you’re bombing women, you’re bombing young people, you’re bombing some of your own allies. So, I think with this film, we are trying to portray a more nuanced image of Iran to understand Iranians better. Yes, Iran is a country of a “Supreme Leader” and “Rosewater” and those thugs, but also, Iran is a country of those people you see in the beginning of the film; the young people who are natural allies of the United States, who love American culture, who love American ideals. And they’re not very dissimilar to Americans.

Speaking on To Light a Candle, his upcoming documentary after Rosewater:
It’s basically about the Baha’is, a religious minority in Iran. They can not teach or study in universities. The film is based on their underground university that they have created in Iran, and they teach their youth through that. The website is called educationisnotacrime.me

Jon Stewart’s Rosewater starring Gael Garcia Bernal as Maziar Bahari opens everywhere on November 14, 2014.

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