By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Report: Talking With ROSEWATER’s Maziar Bahari

Mine was his last interview at the end of a long day, one of many days in a grueling multi-city tour, but you couldn’t tell by looking at him whether Maziar Bahari was running on empty. The Iranian-born Canadian journalist and filmmaker, 47, was immaculately groomed, hospitable, calm, and focused, the intensity of his gaze never flagging. He was in Chicago with “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart to herald the opening of their new movie Rosewater, based on Bahari’s memoir, “Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival.” The book, a true page-turner, details the 118 days of torture and interrogation that the journalist endured in 2009 in Tehran’s Evin prison after he supplied footage to the BBC of public protests against the rigged presidential elections that kept incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power.

The Open Road release marks the screenwriting and directing debut of co-producer Stewart, who undertook the project partly to make amends for inadvertently contributing to Bahari’s distress. For it was a comic interview by “Daily Show” correspondent Jason Jones (playing himself in the film) that helped convince Bahari’s jailers that the journo was secretly a spy for the U.S. and Mossad. Gael Garcia Bernal (Babel, The Motorcycle Diaries) plays Bahari, whose interrogator, a Revolutionary Guard police officer code-named Rosewater (Denmark’s Kim Bodnia, of Pusher and Terribly Happy), is terrifying when he’s not ridiculous, so wildly off the mark are his ideas about the West. To his credit, Stewart walks that fine line between seriousness and satire, illuminating a nightmarish tale by concentrating on its humanity—much as the book does.

Andrea Gronvall: You survived torture and brutal interrogation during a lengthy imprisonment, and later revisited those months first by writing your memoir, and then by serving as production advisor on Rosewater. Now you’re traveling to promote the film, putting up with journalists like me who are conducting another form of interrogation. Does this ever seem a little surreal to you?

Maziar Bahari: It is a bit surreal, but not as surreal as my experiences in prison. It’s a new platform for me, and I’m grateful for the opportunity it gives me to talk about things that are more important. For instance, I was up most of the night because I’ve been keeping touch hourly with contacts in London, which has a six-hour time zone difference from here, and in Tehran, a nine-hour difference. Have you heard about the acid attacks on Iranian women?

AG: Yes. I read a very disturbing story in “The New York Times.” [Reporter’s note: in October several women in Isfahan were doused with acid by motorcyclists, an act that was construed as the men’s censure of the women for not dressing conservatively enough to meet religious fundamentalist standards.]

MB: In response to the attacks there have been demonstrations by protesters in Iran. A photographer, Arya Jafari, has been detained for covering the demonstrations. Instead of arresting the perpetrators, authorities have gone after this journalist. All day I’ve been trying to find help for him in London and Iran; I feel a sense of responsibility to talk about it. Journalism has become one of the world’s most dangerous professions. There were always risks involved in covering disasters and wars [such as getting caught in the crossfire]. But it was during the Balkan crisis in the 1990s that combatants started specifically targeting journalists. Now it’s becoming more common for warring factions to target correspondents in the field, not only to suppress the flow of information, but also to set an example by killing the messenger. We are going through a really turbulent time in journalism. There are the chaos and challenges within the industry itself. Then there are the waves of citizen journalists [operating online and digitally]. Meanwhile, because news now can travel instantly, leaving no time for deniability, governments become more and more afraid of media coverage.

AG: Like in the film, where Rosewater and his boss are laughably paranoid about “media espionage.”

MB: Yes, “media espionage”—that’s bullshit!

AG: Are you satisfied with Jon Stewart’s adaptation of your book?

MB: The film is a good adaptation of the book because Jon and I collaborated on the script early on, and I was on the set during filming.

AG: Was there anything in the book that was deleted in the adaptation that you would have liked to see in the final film?

MB: I could think of things I’d like to see included in a mini-series based on the book, but not in this film. Jon is a genius. I always admired his performance on “The Daily Show,” but when I saw him at work with other people I was really impressed by his trust. When he finds the potential in someone, he trusts that person. That goes for everyone—the crew, the actors.

AG: Can you give me a timeline of your involvement in this film?

MB: I came out of prison at the end of October 2009. I appeared on “The Daily Show” at the end of November 2009. Jon and I first met for breakfast in January 2010. Then we met at least once a month for a couple of years. Between January 2010 and 2012 we approached many writers and producers about working on the film, but they were not interested, for a number of reasons: either they didn’t think the money was big enough, or had doubts about the project, or had other commitments, or were going off to work on the next Bond film. Finally, Jon said, “Fuck it; let’s do it ourselves.” While we were in pre-production Jon was still working a full schedule on his cable series: we would meet for breakfast at 7 AM to get as much work done as possible before he had to appear on the show set by 9 or 9:30 AM.

AG: And then of course he took a hiatus from the show during the summer of 2013 to direct the film, and you were there.

MB: I’d like to add that we were very fortunate to be working with and supported by some terrific collaborators, including Jon’s co-producers Scott Rudin and Gigi Pritzker; the director of photography, Bobby Bukowski; and the production designer, Gerald Sullivan, to name a few.

AG: Let’s talk a bit about the films you yourself have made during your journalism career. After seeing Rosewater lots of viewers are likely to want to track down some of them, but there are no links to those documentaries on your web site, maziarbahari.com. How can we find them?

MB: Well, as you know, I’ve been pretty busy for a while now, so my web site needs to be updated. Also, I don’t own the copyrights to a number of them; those are controlled by various broadcast and cable companies, like BBC, Channel 4, HBO, Discovery.

AG: But you have a new documentary coming out next year, To Light a Candle.

MB: Yes. It’s an hour-long film about the persecution of the Baha’i faith in Iran. I’ve also been developing a number of web sites under the new “.me” domain. Journalismisnotacrime.me tracks Iran’s treatment of the press. Educationisnotacrime.me is another I’m working on, among other “notacrime” web sites. The Iranian government is criminalizing so many forms of behavior and cultural expression; did you hear about the students who were arrested for making a Tehran version of Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” music video? As long as Iran’s government continues to harm its people, we’ll keep covering these stories.

 

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