The story behind ‘Rosewater’: Maziar Bahari speaks on citizen journalism, solitary confinement

Stewart (left) and Bahari (right) worked closely while making "Rosewater." Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune/MCT

Sitting in a hotel room in downtown Boston, Maziar Bahari looked incredibly relaxed for someone who had spent the past several days answering questions about the six months he endured in an Iranian maximum security prison as a political prisoner. An Iranian-Canadian journalist, Bahari was arrested in 2009 while reporting for Newsweek on the protests that unfolded following the controversial presidential election of that year. Five years later, on Nov. 14, “Rosewater,” a film based on Bahari’s 2011 memoir “Then They Came for Me,” which detailed his imprisonment, was released.

That same month, the journalist and author gave roundtable interviews with college students as part of his tour promoting “Rosewater.” Tufts senior Kumar Ramanathan attended the interview and provided the following report.

 “Rosewater” begins pre-imprisonment, with Bahari reporting on the election and the protests in Iran before taking a sharp turn to the solitary confinement and interrogations he faced while being held in Evin Prison in Tehran and accused of being an American spy. During his interrogations, an interview Bahari had given on “The Daily Show” (1996 – present) was used as evidence of his espionage. After his release, this fact drew Bahari back onto the show for another segment, which inspired Jon Stewart, who then wrote and directed “Rosewater.”

Unsurprisingly, Bahari worked closely with Stewart on the film, which the former described as “an adaptation of the book, which was an adaptation of a life.” When asked how accurately the film speaks to his experience, Bahari said, “I think the film is true to the story — the reality might be different, but of course in a film, reality is not that important; it’s the truth that is important. The film is telling a universal truth about myself and about many journalists around the world who are going through the same thing every day. The film is about my story, it’s inspired by my story, but it’s really not about me as a person. It’s about many people.”

This concern with the truth, and the true stories of many imprisoned journalists, pervades Bahari’s explanations of his and Stewart’s goals with “Rosewater.” Because “Rosewater” attempts to reflect many similar experiences, some of the physical violence Bahari endured was toned down for the film.

“What we wanted to do from the beginning … was to show a universal reality,” he said. For Bahari, that meant portraying as accurately as possible the realities of institutionalized torture that journalists face in many parts of the world.

“Authoritarian regimes … create institutions, institutions that institutionalize torture, institutionalize interrogation,” he said. “What you see in many films as torture porn, what you see ISIS is doing in front of cameras, these are anomalies. These are not things that are sustainable. What you see in this film, this is an everyday reality in Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia — it doesn’t matter whether they are American allies or not, these are the governments that want to suppress information. So we really tried to avoid torture porn as much as possible.”

Hearing Bahari speak, one cannot help but be struck by the simultaneous calm and zeal with which he recounts his experience, as well as his humility. While “Rosewater” is told entirely from the perspective of Bahari’s character, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, the film avoids turning him into a hero. Indeed, “Rosewater” is centered on the idea that Bahari isn’t exactly the kind of person you would find in a maximum-security prison. In the first act of the film he is portrayed as a fairly ordinary journalist, one who slowly learns from the citizens around him to be more courageous in his reporting. When Bahari ends up in prison, accused of being an American spy, the film frequently ruminates on the absurdity of his situation with humor.

“[The levity] is not added — it’s from the book, it’s based on the experience that I had in prison,” Bahari said. “What I experienced in prison was very Kafkaesque; it was something that, with hindsight, of course, is quite ridiculous. When you are in prison, in a dark interrogation room, it may not be funny because you are blindfolded, you are beaten, insulted … but with hindsight, when you see someone who thinks that he has a monopoly on truth, someone who thinks that by carrying out the wishes of the Supreme Leader that he can go to heaven and have sex with 72 virgins, that’s just ridiculous.”

Humor helped Bahari escape some of the horrors of solitary confinement. The first few grim scenes of interrogation in the film are interrupted when Bahari’s interrogator plays him a clip from his interview with “The Daily Show” as evidence to prove he is an American spy. In the scene, Bahari’s character bursts out laughing — it’s a sound that returns throughout the rest of the film as a defense mechanism against the stark sensory deprivation of solitary confinement, which Bahari described in ghastly terms.

“When you’re put in solitary confinement, that’s in order to deprive you of all your senses. Especially in those organized institutions like Evin Prison in Iran … these are really clean, strong, solid buildings that they put you in,” Bahari said. “So you cannot see anything except the walls around you, you cannot touch anything except the walls around you, you cannot taste anything because the food tastes like cardboard. You cannot hear anything because the walls are so thick, and you cannot smell anything because it’s so clean and so hospital-like. At least in hospitals you can smell some medicine, but in prison you cannot smell anything.”

The one thing that Bahari did frequently smell was the scent of his interrogator’s perfume, which gives the film its name. Asked if he still associates the smell of rosewater with his experience, Bahari laughed gently and commented that he has hated the scent since he was young. The ease with which he spoke of these experiences was striking, but ought not to be surprising considering how much he has invested in the process of telling his story.

When asked if the process of making the film, during which he was on set almost every day, was difficult for him, he said that “[The film] is part of the process that started during my incarceration … It heals [wounds] more than it opens them, because by being silent about a traumatic experience like this, you allow it to become deeper and to hurt you much more. If you talk about it, you can heal yourself, you can think about it, and … if there’s any anger or if there’s any negative thought you have about that experience, you can sublimate it into something more positive.”

The self-awareness that Bahari exhibits when discussing his experience in making “Rosewater” extends to the changing world of his own profession — journalism.

“The film shows … the decline of professional journalism and the rise of citizen journalism,” he said in the interview. “That’s something that all journalists, all aspiring journalists, have to consider. It will be much more difficult to make a living from journalism, you have to understand that. You also have to be more of a multimedia journalist; you cannot just rely on your pen or your keyboard anymore, you have to know how to use the camera and sound.”

Bahari attributes the rise in citizen journalism to digital media, which he sees as having “democratized” information.

In one scene in “Rosewater,” Stewart takes liberties from his fairly conventional filmmaking approach to intercut scenes of protest with hashtags. The technique can appear kitschy, but it speaks to Bahari’s view of how social media has changed our relationship with information.

“The information which was [once] the monopoly of a small group of people right now is available to everyone,” he said. “So you can use this information to follow Shaggy or One Direction, or you can use this social media and information in order to create some change in your society, in your school, in your municipality, in your city, in your country, in the world.”

This zeal for justice has dominated Bahari’s work since his release from prison. Since his release, he founded the website IranWire, which focuses on citizen journalism in Iran, and currently facilitates multiple projects to raise awareness of imprisoned journalists and to lobby for their safety and release.

While his immediate efforts focus on helping those in situations similar to his own incarceration, Bahari’s work is driven by deeper goals.

“What people want in this country, which is to be regarded as citizens of the country … is something that Iranians want, that Egyptians want, that the Chinese want,” he said. “I think that’s a universal phenomenon, that people want to be recognized as citizens of the country, not just subjects of the country.”

Back in 2009, Bahari’s fateful interview with “The Daily Show,” made nearly the same point — that Americans and Iranians are not so different after all; that in both nations, people seek recognition and desire fair treatment. Giving voice to those ideas put him in prison, but, if anything, Bahari’s spirit and journalistic zeal appear to have grown. In a way, “Rosewater” is not just a film about journalism; it is a piece of journalism itself. And as Maziar Bahari has learned, journalism, rightly deployed, can be one of the most powerful and feared tools for change.


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