The feature film ‘Rosewater’ is based on The New York Times best-selling memoir “Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival,” written by the BBC journalist Maziar Bahari. A true story, the film marks the screenwriting and directorial debut of “The Daily Show” host and executive producer Jon Stewart, and stars Gael García Bernal, leading an international cast. Rosewater is produced by Scott Rudin, Stewart, and Gigi Pritzker, with Lila Yacoub, Eli Bush and Chris McShaneserving as executive producers.
Rosewater follows the Tehran-born Bahari, a 42-year-old broadcast journalist with Canadian citizenship living in London. In June 2009, Bahari returned to Iran to interview Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who was the prime challenger to controversial incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As Moussavi’s supporters rose up to protest Ahmadinejad’s victory declaration hours before the polls closed on election day, Bahari endured great personal risk by submitting camera footage of the unfolding street riots to the BBC. Bahari was soon arrested by Revolutionary Guard police, led by a man identifying himself only as “Rosewater,” who proceeded to torture and interrogate the journalist over the next 118 days.
In October 2009, with Bahari’s wife leading an international campaign from London to have her husband freed, and Western media outlets including “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” continuing to keep the story alive, Iranian authorities released Bahari on $300,000 bail and the promise he would act as a spy for the government.
Rosewater has a direct connection to Stewart, who since taking over as host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” in 1999, has turned the nightly half-hour satirical look at newsmakers and news-coverers into not only a perennial Emmy-winning juggernaut, but also an important touchstone on the zeitgeist. Stewart and “The Daily Show” covered Bahari’s saga nightly and had the journalist appear on the show to talk about his ordeal once he was released from prison.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Maziar Bahari to discuss his career, the ordeal which inspired ‘Rosewater,’ the challenges of bringing it to both the written page and the silver screen, as well as his thoughts on the impact of social media on journalism.
What was it about journalism that made you pursue it as a career?
Since I was a child, I was always interested in politics because my family was interested in politics. I always wanted to be involved in films. I thought documentary films would be a good marriage between film politics and journalism. I started work as a documentary filmmaker. I also practiced journalism because I think I am a little curious and nosey by nature! [laughs] Being a journalist allows me to ask people questions and go into situations where a normal person may not often go to. I also think that because of my family background I have this social consciousness and I felt I could help people through telling their stories.
For those who may just be discovering your story, what can you tell us about the events leading up to your arrest, interrogation and torture in Iran in 2009?
What happened in 2009 was two primary events. On one hand, people were asking for their rights as citizens of the country. Iran has gone through several revolutions in the past century. In 1905, the people rose against an absolute monarch and had a constitutional revolution and it was the first time in Asia. In 1979, they rose against the absolute monarch, The Shaw. They made the mistake of bringing Khomeini to power but they were asking for their rights as citizens of the country and not subjects of the king. In 2009, people demonstrated in the millions asking for their rights as citizens of their country. They wanted their votes to be counted because they believed their votes were rigged. That coincided with the explosion of social media that democratized information and gave people a new power to gather information, share information and disseminate information and, at the same time, mobilize themselves through social media. The combination of these two factors really scared the Iranian regime. We have seen other regimes in different places being scared of that, including Egypt, Ukraine, Hong Kong, Brazil, different Arab countries and even in Ferguson, Missouri in this country. People manage to mobilize themselves through social media. Because the Iranian regime was scared and did not know what to do, it resorted to oppressing people, mass arrests and show trials. It was basically a knee-jerk reaction to what was happening on the street and in social media. Part of that mass arrest and knee-jerk reaction was an attempt to implicate the reformists within the country as foreign agents. In order to prove that they wanted some people inside of the country of Iran who were working with foreign organizations to act as conduits between the reformists and foreign organizations, they arrested someone who was working for the British Embassy, someone who worked for the Soros Foundation and I was supposed to be the media conduit between the reformist in Iran and the foreign agencies.
You were imprisoned in Iran for 188 days. Over the course of that time period you were isolated and tortured. You emerged from this life-changing event and penned the book “Rosewater: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity and Survival.” What was it like to put down what you endured during that time period in written form?
It wasn’t difficult at all because when I was in prison I was beaten, insulted, tortured and placed in solitary confinement where I became delusional and suicidal at times. Along the way, I always promised myself that, one day, I would come out and write this story to tell the world what is happening inside prisons inside Iran and around the world. As soon as I came out of prison, I wrote about 50,000 words in about 20 days. Out of that came a about 10,000-word Newsweek article. Then I did interviews, worked with Jon [Stewart] on the script for the film, was on the set all of the time and I am talking to you now. All of that was part of the healing process. I am not opening any old wounds. Maybe I am mending the old wounds. It has been a healing process for me, really.
What were some of the biggest challenges of bringing “Rosewater” to the screen?
I think for Jon it was mainly the structure, what he had to delete, what he had to add and how much detail we had to have. It was a very collaborative effort. I was involved with the process from the beginning. We worked on the script together and I was on the set each day. We worked with the actors together and it was a very fulfilling and collaborative effort, I would say.
You have a great cast for this film. Obviously, this story is based on your life and the love of your family. What was it like working with the very talented cast and helping them bring these characters to life?
I had long conversations with Gael García Bernal. I was on the set whenever he wanted to ask a question and I was ready to help him. The good thing about Gael is that he is not your stereotypical Hollywood actor who may not know where Iran is on the map. He is quite knowledgeable about the world. He is a very political person. He makes documentaries and even has his own documentary film festival. He is quite knowledgeable. so it wasn’t as if he didn’t know anything. He was quite knowledgable.
There is a lot people can learn from “Rosewater.” What do you hope people take away from this picture?
There are so many things that I hope people pay attention to. I hope the film raises awareness to the situation of journalists all around the world and what they are going through on a daily basis. I also hope people pay more attention to the subtext of the film, which is really an appreciation of culture and the love for your family. I think the subtext of the film is the love for family that sustained me through that ordeal. It is very interesting that the main characters of the film are two male characters. The heart and soul of the film really lies with three amazing woman — my mother, my sister and my wife. We have shown the film in different cities and I have traveled with the film around the United States over the past two weeks. After the screening of the film, women always come to me to tell me their thoughts. They really get the film and really identify with the film, maybe even more than the men.
We have seen the world of journalism hugely impacted by the rise of social media in the past several years. What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to young journalists working in this new and ever-changing climate?
I think they have to understand one thing, professional journalism as we know it is in decline. Citizen journalism, all around the world, is on the rise. I think professional journalists will eventually become editors for citizen journalists. I think citizen journalists, through social media and other forms of other information, are becoming much more relevant than they are now. I think the future of journalism truly belongs to citizen journalism.
Thank you so much for your time today, sir. I really enjoyed both your book and the film. I wish you continued success!
Thank you so much, Jason. Take care!