Interview: A Conversation with Maziar Bahari on “Rosewater”


From left to right: Gael Garcia Bernal, Jon Stewart, Maziar Bahari

The Young Folks had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Maziar Bahari on the upcoming film, Rosewater. Based on his memoir, Then They Came For Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival, the film depicts Tehran-born Bahari, a 42-year-old broadcast journalist with Canadian citizenship living in London, who is imprisoned by the Iranian government for 118 days.

In June 2009, Bahari returned to his birthplace, Iran, to cover and report on the presidential election. Mir-Houssein Mousavi was the prime challenger against the controversial incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The former represented a new Iran, a more democratic Iran, while the latter symbolized the continuation of a totalitarian government. The rigged results led to two opposing sides clashing in violent protests and riots. Bahari’s decision in documenting this violence, in documenting the truth, led to his arrest and imprisonment in Iran’s most notorious prison.

Written and directed by Jon Stewart, Rosewater is truly an inspiring story of what it means to be free. In the most literal sense, freedom from repressive regimes means having certain inalienable rights: having the freedom to voice your opinion, to peacefully demonstrate, to vote and expect fair results. However, there is also an emblematic freedom, a more innate liberty that resides within an individual that allows him or her to be internally free despite living in a despotic environment. That’s what Mr. Bahari holds. Through his story, it is evident that he possesses this fundamental independence that is lacking in his torturers. This liberty that allows him to accept truth and reject paranoia, to appreciate art, culture, and life, is what gets him through this experience, and most importantly, it’s what makes him the man he is today.

Q: Did you ever imagine that your story would be brought to the big screen?

MB: No, I did not think about it, but when I came out of prison, I wrote an article for Newsweek magazine. I started to write immediately. I wrote about 50,000 words in about 20 days, and all of that came out in a 10,000-word article for Newsweek magazine, and then I did a lot of interviews, including an interview with The Daily Show. So I became somewhat friendly with Jon Stewart, and we started to talk about doing a film in January 2010. In the beginning Jon wanted to just be the producer or the executive producer of the film, and then we approached many writers, many directors. They were either busy, or working, or they were not interested in the little money we had. So after almost a year and half, almost two years, Jon said, “Well, let’s forget about it, and let’s just do it ourselves.” And he started to write, and he was sending me the drafts, and we worked on the script together. He made the film because he has invested so much time and energy on the story, so it did not come as a surprise because I was involved from the beginning, but when I was going through the experience, no, I was just thinking of doing an article. It’s also unusual for Hollywood to make such a film.

Q: Does the film narrative stay true to your story? If not, how is it different?


MB: It’s different. It’s a filmed version of the book, and the book is a 300-page book of a 118 days experience, and a lifetime. It would be really boring if it was based on the book, so the film has to have its own dramatic structure, its own narrative arc, different characterizations. Also, because the film is for the universal audience, especially the American audience, it has to show certain things immediately that explains in 10 pages in the book. But it’s very true to the truth of the book. The reality might be different, but the truth is the same.

Q: In several instances, it’s evident that there is a comedic imprint on this movie, especially in some of the scenes with Rosewater. Was there a point in your confinement when circumstances were so ludicrous that they were almost comical? Or was that just an addition to the film?

MB: No, all the humor in the film is from the book. The book has even more ridiculous sequences as well that are not in the film. The reality is that these authoritarian regimes and dictatorships think that they own the truth. They think that they know everything, and that is funny. Whenever you think that you know everything, it’s just ridiculous. And then when you try to convince people that what they are telling you is a lie, and what they know based on their ignorance is true, it’s ridiculous. Also, from the beginning when I was in prison, I knew that I had to consider these people as human beings because if I regarded them as an institution, or as evil, or monstrous, that would be counterproductive. That would be self-defeating in a way because you cannot really defeat a monster or an institution with no face. But if you consider someone as a human being with all their faults and complex characters, and vulnerabilities, you can exploit them to your own advantage. Like those massage scenes in the film. They all came out from that because I considered this guy as someone who is deprived, who spends all his time in a dark interrogation room beating people, insulting people, and just you know, he’s horny, so I had to exploit that part of him. First of all, to stop him from beating me, and also, just to maliciously torture the torturer. I think whenever you look at someone as a human being, they have funny things about them. And I think through observation, you can help yourself, and have the upper hand over those people.

Q: Rosewater, for instance, is the antagonist, but there’s a deeper element to him that makes the audience almost sympathize with him—Can you describe your relationship with him?


MB: Rosewater, as I said, he’s not… I didn’t think of him as an evil person. I didn’t regard him as a monster. I regarded him as someone, a human being with bad characteristics who was working for a bad regime, and I took advantage of it. In the interrogation room, we had two different kinds of battles. One was the physical battle that was lost. I had lost it from the beginning because I was blindfolded, and I was facing the wall, and he was bigger than me. I was a prisoner, he was the interrogator. But there was also the psychological battle that I had with him. And in that psychological battle, I thought from the beginning that I could be the winner because I had lived a much richer life than he did. I had traveled to 70 countries, I had watched many films, I had read many books, I had listened to much music, different kinds of music. And he is someone who was definitely from a traditional family. He spent his life in a dark interrogation room, beating people, insulting people. So he had a very narrow view of life, and culture. So I knew that if I managed to get into my inner resources, I could have the upper hand. But again, I never regarded him as a monster. I thought he’s a human being, like anyone. I felt sorry for him more than anything.

Q: Why did you call him Rosewater?

MB: Because I did not know his name. I would never know his name, maybe, but he smelled like Rosewater perfume.


Q: Did you have a say in who was going to portray you in the film?

MB: No, I did not, but we looked at many choices. It was ultimately Jon’s decision. We looked at many different additions, and Gael was by far the best actor who read the script in the auditions. What I like about Gael is that even in the most desperate moments, he never looks like a victim. He always looks like someone who’s coming through this experience, somehow unscathed. He’s also emotionally very intelligent. Both actors. Both Gael and Kim Bodnia, who played Rosewater. They’re both very emotionally intelligent, and you can see different layers of their formation, different layers of emotion in their eyes, and I think that’s why John chose both of them.

Q: How involved were you on set and with the filming process?

MB: I was there almost on a daily basis, except for a week that I had to go back to London for some family reasons, but I was on the set. I mean Jon Stewart is a genius, and like many other geniuses, he believes in close collaborations, and because it was his first film and because he did not know much about Iran, I consulted him on the script, on going through different drafts. He also told other people who were more experienced in film than him that he did not know many things, so he had a vision, a clear vision of what he wanted to do in terms of the film, but he did not know how to achieve it, so in some instances, he asked for people’s help to do that. It was a very close relationship, working relationship, if not, I wouldn’t be here promoting the film [laughs].

One of the parts that I identified with was the portrayal of the relationship between you and your sister, and how she exposed you to film and music. So that leads me to my next question…

Q: Can you tell the young folks what your all time favorite film and musical album is?

MB: My all time favorite film. I cannot say my favorite film. There are films that I really appreciate, and there are films that really helped me go through imprisonment. Two musicals really: Cabaret and West Side Story. Those are the films that I watched over and over again in my head. Those really helped me. And Leonard Cohen. That really helped me in prison, and I’m glad that it’s in the film. Its not as if it was Ricky Martin in prison and Leonard Cohen in the film. It was Leonard Cohen. It’s good that you’re introducing a lot of young people to Leonard Cohen through this article [Laughs].

 Q: And what current film and musical album are you most excited about?

MB: I saw Foxcatcher recently. That’s an excellent film. It’s a really, really good film. And music… I’m getting into this Colombian group called Systema Solar. They’re very good. Also, a friend of mine sent me a collection of music that I made in Iran in the 1980s, and I’m listening to that collection now. It was in a cassette and he digitized it. It’s a lot of Depeche Mode, David Bowie. So yeah, Systema Solar might be the new music. I really like Systema Solar these days.

Q: Finally, there’s a scene during the confinement where your character dances to the music in his head. Did this really happen or was this creative license on the part of Gael?

MB: [Laughs] He doesn’t dance as well as I do. No, it didn’t happen. It’s very much creative license, yeah. I cannot dance even if my life depended on it, but he’s a very good dancer. He wanted to be a salsa dancer. No, don’t say that. [Laughs] He wanted to be a dancer, I think. We had a joint interview with Gael at some point, and there’s a scene in Tu Mamá También when he kisses his best friend, a male friend, and Gael said that doing that dance sequence, it was very much like that scene in that he had to let himself go, that he had to just leave his inhibitions, leave all the restrictions he had, and just dance. And when that scene happened, it was just the cameraman and Gael in the room, and they were dancing. That was it. I wish I could dance like him.




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