‘Rosewater’ Journalist Maziar Bahari: ‘I Think People Can Have Monopoly Over Truth’

From left: Journalist Maziar Bahari and director/writer/producer Jon Stewart at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 8, 2014 in Toronto.
From left: Journalist Maziar Bahari and director/writer/producer Jon Stewart at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 8, 2014 in Toronto. –Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Variety

The harrowing journey of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari will come to life on the big screen this weekend, when “Rosewater’’ hits theaters.

In 2009, the Iranian government imprisoned Bahari for 118 days at the notorious Evin Prison after accusing him of colluding with Western spies. In reality, the journalist and filmmaker was just covering protests of that year’s Iranian elections for Newsweek.

He talked about how satire resulted in his being thrown in jail in his 2011 autobiography “Then They Came for Me.’’ Bahari landed on Iran’s radar after a humorous interview with “The Daily Show’’ correspondent Jason Jones, who pretended to be an American spy during the skit.

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Jon Stewart, the host of “The Daily Show,’’ helped turn that book into “Rosewater,’’ his directorial debut.

Bahari was in Boston last week for a screening of the film at the Museum of Fine Arts, and he spoke with Boston.com about his time working with Stewart, not having any regrets about the actions that led to his arrest, and his views on journalism.

Boston.com: As a filmmaker yourself, what did you think of Jon Stewart’s take on your story? Was he able to capture the emotions you felt during your tumultuous journey?

Maziar Bahari: I think it’s a good adaptation of the book. The book, of course, was an adaptation of life and [the] 118-day incarceration. I think what we see on the screen is the result of a close collaboration between Jon and myself. The first time we talked about doing the film was in January 2010, just a couple of months after I came out of prison. He read different drafts of the book; he was involved with writing the book. It was a close collaboration, and whatever you see on the screen is the result of that close collaboration.

Since the two of you worked so closely to create “Rosewater,’’ did your style of filmmaking have a major influence on the movie?

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I think so. My background as a filmmaker influenced the book itself and the writing of the book. And because of that, I think the book is very cinematic as well. Because I’m a filmmaker, I was thinking about scenes [and] locations—also, the book has more of a film structure than a book structure. While we were working on the script together, I think I understood what he was going through and what he wanted to achieve more than someone who’s not familiar with the process of filmmaking.

After seeing the film, what did you think of Gael Garcia Bernal’s performance? Why was he a good fit to play you?

He’s a great actor. He’s been one of my favorite actors since I saw him in “Amores Perros,’’ “Y Tu Mamá También,’’ and “The Motorcycle Diaries.’’

Also, he’s a very political person. It was not as if we had someone who was totally unkowledgeable about what was going on in Iran. When he read the book, he had educated questions, he knew what questions he should ask, and then, while making the film, he was very open to ideas and suggestions. But again, this is a cinematic rendition of the character and even though the film is inspired by and based on my story, it’s the story of many other people all around the world who are going through the same experience every day. I think Gael has managed to portray this beautifully. Also, I think it’s a character that needed a true actor with emotional intelligence, and I think both Gael and Kim [Bodnia], through their eyes, convey so many layers of information, emotions, and ideas that I think [other actors] would not be able to do.

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Gael did a fantastic job balancing both the humor and the seriousness that the role required.

Exactly. I think one of Jon’s main criteria for choosing Gael was to have an actor who wouldn’t portray a victim, even in the worst, tragic situations. He’s always a survivor; there’s always a sense of mischief in his eyes.

It seemed like humor played a big part in keeping your spirits up during the 118 days of incarceration, but what exactly kept you going during all those months?

I think humor was part of it. But it comes from knowledge, from being able to observe these hypocrisies and [put them] in a proper context. I think what I did was just to observe the situation, see these abnormalities that look quite normal to my captor and his bosses, and just write [them] down. Whenever someone thinks that he or she has the monopoly on truth, whenever somone thinks he—it’s usually he—is going to be rewarded for the atrocious acts, knowing that he’s carrying out these atrocious acts, he’s going to be rewarded handsomely by God with 72 virgins for these atrocious acts, that person is going to be… that looks ridiculous. You may not be able to laugh at him when you’re in an interrogation room in a dark prison in Tehran, but with hindsight, it’s just funny. When you read [Franz] Kafka’s “The Trial,’’ what K is going through is not funny for him. But as the reader, you just can’t stop laughing about the ridiculousness of the situation.

In the film, your captor is enamored with this warped idea of America, specifically New Jersey, even though he’s ideologically opposed to every aspect of American culture. It’s like he’s torn between having to wait for his heavenly reward and wanting to live out his decadent fantasies now in the real world.

That’s one of the reasons why he hated me; he thought I had been enjoying things that should only be enjoyed in paradise. One of the reasons that all of these interrogations are so surreal and so absurd is part of the regime’s, I think, inherent character that wants to keep people as insecure as possible about their future. And it’s not only the general population—even the regime’s functionaries are always careful about making mistakes because people have been executed, people have been tortured and murdered for even more ridiculous charges than [mine]. I think all the functionaries within the regime are very insecure.

What’s it going to take to convince the people in these positions of power within the Iranian government to change their ways?

It’s a gradual change. I think when people are informed, when there’s a flow of information between outside Iran and inside the country, it’s inevitably going to affect the general population. And through the general population it’s going to affect the functionaries as well. They realize they cannot sustain their power through just brute force—they have to give in somehow, they have to come to some sort of compromise with people. That will result in real change within a country. You see that all around the world. You see that in Latin America, where they had military regimes up to 20, 25 years ago. Now, they are flourishing democracies and flourishing economies.

Looking back on your experience, do you have any regrets? Do you regret doing “The Daily Show’’ interview that landed you in jail? Do you regret confessing to things you didn’t do?

No, not at all. It was not as if I went to a war zone without a helmet or without a flak jacket, holding my camera in the air and yelling, “Please shoot me!’’ It was not like that. I was very cautious. I had been working in Iran for 12 years; I had been observing the laws of the country for 12 years. I knew people within the system. I had been in touch with them. They were my sources, and I took all the precautions.

But in 2009, something changed. People were demonstrating in the millions, demanding their rights as citizens of the country and using journalistic methods of sharing information through social media in order to mobilize themselves and in order to gather, disseminate, and share information. The combination of these two things really scared the regime, and what happened to me [was] what happened to many people, because more than 1000 people were arrested with the same arrest warrant that I had. That was a knee-jerk reaction of the regime to the combination of these two elements.

Have conditions improved at all for journalists on the ground in Iran?

No, it’s much worse. Journalism in general, all around the world, is going through a very, very dark period. On the one hand, you see the waning influence of traditional media and professional journalists. On the other hand, you see the rise of citizen journalists. But the nature of journalism is changing. At the same time, because journalism is becoming more democratic, information is getting democratized. Because of that, these authoritarian regimes, even authoritarian instituions, like many companies and corporations, they are afraid of information. As a result, they resort to old methods of suppression: Shutdowns, incarcerations, arrests, torture, and interrogations.

A report came out recently detailing how, over the last 10 years, people around the world who’ve killed journalists end up getting away with it in 90 percent of cases.

Of course. They go around with impunity. That’s one of the reasons that I have been heavily involved in these campaigns to make people aware about what’s going on not only in Iran, but all around the world for journalists.

Is there anything more, though, that Western powers can do to help journalists?

What they can do is create space for people. I think by creating space, they will allow people to have more information, to be open to more ideas, to share information. Western powers can do that through technology companies. They can do things like creating satellites, uncensored internet. They can make sure the use of the Internet is more widespread all around the world. Things that Richard Branson is talking about and Western governments can take. Through that, people will become better allies of the West, and especially the United States. I have traveled all around the world and most of the ordinary people all around the world, even in the most fanatical countries, they like the ideals of the United States. They like the culture of the United States and Western culture. They like democracy as a concept. But what stops them from taking action is this lack of information, this lack of communication. So, by providing that space, by providing means to communicate better with each other, Western countries, especially the United States, can benefit heavily from that.

Considering how bad conditions are for journalists around the world, are you optimistic at all about the future?

I think democracy is the future and I think, at the moment, we see the knee-jerk reactions of governments, institutions, and terrorist groups like ISIS to this democratizing of information. But I think, in the future, when information is more democratized, I think people can have monopoly over truth, not governments or institutions.

What do you hope audiences take away from “Rosewater’’ after they see it?

I’m hoping that people appreciate what journalists are doing more. When they watch the nightly news or read a website or newspaper about Iraq, Syria, [or] Libya, they can understand what journalists are going through better. But also, the film is a celebration of culture, family, friendship, music, literature, and film. When people see it, I’m hoping that they can appreciate their loved ones. Another thing, what we’ve witnessed in different cities, is that women identify a lot with this film. Even though the main characters of the film are two men, three amazing women are the heart and soul—my mother, my sister, and my wife—and they are portrayed by great actresses as well.

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