Tablet Life & Arts

Maziar Bahari dives into ‘Rosewater’

Although Maziar Bahari has been doing interviews for Rosewater, Jon Stewart’s movie about the four months Bahari spent in an Iranian prison, the emphasis in promotion for the movie has been on Stewart.

The Daily Show host, who took three months off to make his directing debut filming Bahari’s story and spent a lot more time trying to get it made, appears prominently in ads for the movie, and his name appears above the title of Rosewater’s tie-in book.

But the book, originally called Then They Came for Me, was written by Bahari, an Iranian-born, Canadian-educated Newsweek reporter who was arrested without charge during the 2009 Iranian election protests and spent 118 days in solitary confinement. He was cut off from loved ones, including his pregnant fiancee, and endured regular beatings. A Daily Show appearance by Bahari figures into the movie’s story, but Bahari says that he believes that Stewart was driven by more than that.

“I don’t think that he would be interested in devoting four years to developing this story and taking a three-month hiatus if it was only because of the appearance,” Bahari says in a phone interview.

“I think what interested Jon in the story, according to him, is the family aspect. It’s a generational story. And also the humor. It’s not a somber, sad tragic story about torture.”

First, the generational aspect: During the 1950s, Bahari’s father was jailed repeatedly for fighting against the shah’s regime, Bahari says in the Newsweek article he wrote about his imprisonment. His sister, Maryam, had also been jailed and tortured, under the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime.

The humor is the humor of absurdity, of what Stewart called in a later Daily Show segment with Bahari “not just the banality of evil but the stupidity of evil.” (The title of the movie is from the nickname Bahari gave his chief interrogator, whom he usually encountered blindfolded and whose name he never knew — so Bahari calls him “Mr. Rosewater,” after the cologne the interrogator wore.)

As part of the “evidence” that Bahari was a spy, his captors, who had been monitoring him before his Daily Show appearance, showed him a clip of that segment , in which TDS correspondent Jason Jones, pretending to be a spy himself (and a pretty inept one) briefly interviews Bahari. In the six-minute segment, Bahari appears for less than 90 seconds.

Not realizing that the bit was for a comedy show, or even comprehending that it was meant to provide Americans stereotype-busting, positive images of Iranians, Mr. Rosewater accused Bahari (played in the movie by Gael García Bernal) of associating with a U.S. spy, further evidence that he was an “agent of foreign intelligence organizations.”

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“The Iranian government, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, had a scenario for me,” Bahari says. “They wanted to implicate a group of reformists through some people who work for foreign organizations or foreign media, through people like me. … They had this scenario, and they had been following me, unbeknownst to me or anyone else who had dealt with me at that time.”

New levels of absurdity

Mr. Rosewater accused Bahari of working for such intelligence organizations as the CIA, MI-6, Mossad — and with Newsweek. Even though what Bahari tells Jones is fairly innocuous and shows Iran in a positive light, his captors said it was further evidence of his being a spy.

“In the absence of any real evidence, they had to bring forward ridiculous evidence, including my appearance on The Daily Show, and some more ridiculous evidence as well,” Bahari says. “It’s as if they read Kafka and it wasn’t absurdist enough, so they added a little bit of Monty Python.”

Stewart doesn’t focus on violence in Rosewater — he told Rolling Stonethat he wanted it to be “like the shark in Jaws … when it does appear, you really feel the effect of it that much more.” Bahari, who suffered months of beatings, says he doesn’t think any movie — or book — could quite communicate what he went through.

“That’s true about everything,” Bahari says. “Even Claude Lanzmann’s [nearly 10-hour] documentary about the Holocaust, Shoah, cannot show what actually happened during the Holocaust. You can try your best to show the reality, but it’s never going to be the same.

“But I think that what Jon has done brilliantly in the film is to tell a universal story, a good story, a dramatic story, and it’s a good adaptation of the book,” he continues.

“And the book itself was just a 300-page book about a lifelong experience that started with that 118 days of incarceration.”

Soundtrack for suffering

Bahari’s sense of humor helped him through his ordeal, as did his love of music — he often sang the songs of Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen to himself to keep himself going. Introduced to the music of Cohen by his older sister, Bahari found that while he was in prison, he could find calm in his memory of the singer’s poetic words.

“When you are thrown into a cell in solitary confinement, you are deprived of all your senses,” Bahari says. “You can’t see anything except for the walls around you, you cannot smell anything because the institution is like a hospital, you cannot taste anything because the food tastes like cardboard.

“So in that situation, you have to resort to something else,” he continues. “Some people in the cells around me were reciting the words of the Koran, they were finding solace through their religion.

“But I’m not a believer, I’m not a religious person, so I had to find something else to give me solace in that situation.”

He says he feels fortunate that he wasn’t imprisoned longer — and then quips that it’s unfortunate that his imprisonment wasn’t shorter. But he’s also aware that others have gone through, and are still going through, worse. Imprisonment has given him a sense of perspective.

“Before this experience, maybe when I was on a subway and it was hot and I couldn’t find a place to sit, I would say, ‘Oh, my God, this is torture,’ ” Bahari says. “But I don’t say that anymore, because I’ve experienced real torture now.”

ROSEWATER

A special screening will be 7:30 p.m. Thursday, with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert via satellite for a live Q&A, at Alliance Town Center, Fort Worth; Cinemark Tinseltown 17, Grapevine; The Parks at Arlington; AMC NorthPark, Dallas; Cinemark West Plano; and Cinemark Legacy, Plano. For information, go to http://www.fathomevents.com/event/rosewater

The film opens its regular engagement Friday at AMC Grapevine Mills; Cinemark Tinseltown Grapevine; AMC Parks at Arlington; AMC Village at the Parkway, Addison; Angelika Dallas; and Angelika Plano.

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