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Directorial Debut ‘Rosewater’: Interview With Jon Stewart & Maziar Bahari

Directorial Debut 'Rosewater': Interview With Jon Stewart & Maziar Bahari

In anticipation of the
premiere of Jon Stewart’s critically acclaimed directorial
debut, “Rosewater”,
SydneysBuzz recently joined an exclusive media call hosted by BoomGen
with Jon Stewart and Maziar Bahari.

congratulates Jon Stewart for his directorial debutRosewater”, based on
the 2011 memoir and New York Times Best Seller Then They Came
For Me
, by Iranian-born
journalist Maziar Bahari, played by Gael Garcia Bernal. The film
is a fictional telling of Bahari’s
experience in solitary confinement in Tehran for accusations of espionage after
filming Iranian protests after the country’s 2009 corrupt elections.

“Rosewater” is more than a noble act intending to expose one of countless stories about
journalists worldwide who have been wrongly accused and tortured for alleged
spying. It is a work of personal connection born out of Stewart’s
friendship with Bahari and given a Stewart-like twist of
absolute absurdity. As seen in the film, Bahari’s captor uses a
satirical clip of The Daily Show‘s Jason Jones interviewing him in
Tehran as evidence against him for conspiring with American spies:

Bahari: He’s not a spy. It’s a show… a comedy show.
He’s a comedian pretending to be a spy.

Captor: So can you tell me why a American
pretending to be a spy had chosen to interview you?”

Bahari: And why would a real spy be on a TV show?” 

Stewart’s bold move into drama is not
easy and deserves recognition – especially for venturing out of his established identity as one America’s most talented comedians
and satirists. Although there are moments of lightness sparsely peppered
throughout the film, it is an outrageous and surreal account that exposes
the plight of journalists who risk their freedom and lives for the voices and
truth of many. 

Jon Stewart and Maziar Bahari
share their experience of making “Rosewater” and share their views on the
film’s impact: 

We felt that this story is really crucial and relevant, and should be seen as a
part of events, and not as an artifact of history. I think that was our
frustration with the more glacial elements of filmmaking, and is what I think
spurred us to try and expedite the project… so that it could be seen in the
context of the timeframe in which the whole Green Movement and the election
took place.

Bahari: The film
tells the timely story in terms of what is happening to journalists today, not
only in Iran, but around the world. The film is inspired by my story and the
book, but it is really the story of thousands of journalists around the world.
I think because of the portrayal of Iran in the media – especially the American
media and Hollywood films – it’s very important for people to see this film in
order to have a more nuanced image of Iran, to understand Iran better. 

Do you see this film
as having an impact with not just the way that Americans view Iran, but the
policy we have towards Iran?

Stewart: It’s
hard to say, because obviously those types of issues occur incrementally. In
America, they (Iran) are referred to by some as “The Axis of Evil”. In Iran,
America is referred to by some as “The Great Satan”. It’s a very low bar of conversation
for us to try and clear in terms of nuance. I think anything that you can add
to the dialog that increases our ability to see each other as human is an
important contribution to the conversation. That, in and of itself, we hope is
just something to consider.

Hopefully, the American audience will see certain things
within that are a reflection of our own culture, of our own issues, and not
just be able to dismiss it as the singular extremity of one eccentric regime.
In terms of actual progress of things – you just don’t know – but in terms of
what we hope it contributes to the conversation is that. 

Bahari: Some
people within the Iranian government watch the film and they see it and can see
how ridiculous their actions are, how brutal some of the other people within
the government are. I think even if one person changes his behavior within the
Iranian government, I’ll be happy.

I think for the people in the United States, it’s very
important to see this film because they can see human beings, young people, enlightened,
open-minded people in the first half of the film who are part of the Green Movement.
And if they ever want to attack or bomb Iran, these people are going to suffer
much more than the Revolutionary Guard and the Iranian government. 

What is the trickiest
part of portraying a real portrait of the Iranian people in “Rosewater”?

Stewart: I don’t
think it’s that tricky, because it’s true. It is a very complex, nuanced and
interesting society. I think in general, I had to own a little bit of my
inauthenticity. I’m not Iranian, and although it’s based on the memoir of
someone who is and is very familiar (and Maziar was collaborating throughout
the script), I’m not one of the great Iranian directors that you see. And if
they were to do it, it would have an inherent nuance to it that I could never
provide. The hope is that for a western audience to have a more nuanced version
than what they’re accustomed to. 

Some see “Rosewater”
as the first American film to humanize Iranians. Stewart responds:

Stewart: We
didn’t need to make a contrived attempt at humanizing, because they’re human.
So as long as we tried to paint people and consider what their daily burdens
were, whether it was his interrogator, or what his mother was going through, or
what Davood was going through, and the younger people of Robat Karim… As long
as we tried to be authentic and honest about what their daily struggle would
be, they would be inherently humanized, because ultimately, that’s just the
truth of who they are. 

What would you like
Iranians to know about why you made this film?

Stewart: I would
hope that they just view the project for its qualities and that it’s not a
political statement. Maziar’s memoir is an impression of his experience. This
film is an impression of that memoir, so it’s already sort of twice removed,
but I hope that Iranians would see it as a universal
story – that somebody outside of Iran is trying to understand the cost of
oppression, the cost of suppression to their culture, but also to all cultures.
I can’t stress that enough.

Governments everywhere have their pressure points that they
try and apply to their people, to keep information that they don’t want to get
out from getting out. I think if there’s a point or a subtext to the movie that
would be important, it is the idea that to build those apparatuses within
governments, to do that to their people, is far more damaging to that government
and to that country than what any piece of information could ever be. That’s
for western countries, non-allied countries, enemies, the United States, any of

What did you learn
about the Iranians and the Muslim world that you didn’t understand before

I don’t think my view was skewed to the point of, “Wait a
minute… They eat with their mouths? This is insane!” There wasn’t anything sort
of earthshattering with that. For me, it was more about being impressed by the
hospitality. There wasn’t a moment when you could go past somebody where they
wouldn’t immediately invite you to their house for two to three dinners.

Did you have
intentions of directing before “Rosewater”?

Stewart: It grew
very organically when Maziar had gotten out of prison and we had become
friendly. He would come through New York, and we would have breakfast and talk
about writing his memoir. We talked about how to make it into a film, but more
as producers, and as we sent it around to various writers who were already more
gainfully employed than how we could employ them… We just got frustrated that it
was a year and a half and there was very little movement. That’s really what drove
the initial impulse to write it. Directing grew out of becoming slightly
territorial at that point.

Stewart discusses the
casting of
Gael García Bernal:  

We cast a pretty wide net as far as actors are concerned… I
think for me, knowing Maziar, he has such an interesting way of being able to
compartmentalize the duress and still retain a sort of sense of mischief and
humor. The actor had to really bring agility to those scenes. You know, there’s
one scene where in the span of two and a half minutes, he goes from being
terrified that he’s going to be beaten, to being incredulous that he gets to
call his wife, to being overcome with joy when he finds out that he has a
daughter, to being pummeled against a wall, to laughing in his interrogators
face… He had a likeness and a subtlety about the way he could shift those gears
in a non ostentatious way that I thought really captured what we would need to
capture to make this thing feel authentic.

Maziar (on Gael and
how Iranians feel about him playing an Iranian):
They complained much less
than I expected. Many Iranians watched the film in different places (London,
Toronto and LA) and actually congratulated Gael on his performance, and it’s an
amazing performance.

To learn more, visit
“Rosewater” official website.  

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