Interview: The Story of Maziar Bahari in Jon Stewart’s ‘Rosewater’

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CHICAGO – Journalists are under fire, both in the hot zones of the world’s conflicts, and within the economics of the shrinking news business. One journalist – Maziar Bahari – became part of the drama in the 2009 Iranian presidential elections, and that story is told in writer/director Jon Stewart’s new film, “Rosewater.”

Stewart, of course, is the host of “The Daily Show” on the Comedy Central TV network, and it was a 2009 report on the show that played into the Iranian-born Bahari’s imprisonment shortly after the election. The journalist was covering the story, but became part of it when he was detained by Iranian officials, thrown in prison and interrogated as a spy using “enhanced” techniques. The film called “Rosewater” was based on Bahari’s book, “They Came for Me,” and Jon Stewart came full circle with the story by adapting the screenplay and directing the story.

Gael García Bernal
Gael García Bernal Portrays Maziar Bahari in ‘Rosewater’
Photo credit: Open Road Films (II) talked to the journalist while he was in Chicago to promote the film. The unlikely path from reality to film version all centers on Maziar Bahari. The first thing that blows my mind about the whole story is how ‘The Daily Show’ was part of what they used against you when you were incarcerated, how it resulted in Jon Stewart adapting and directing the film. What you find strange about the karma of all of this?

Maziar Bahari: First of all, I want to make it clear that my appearance on ‘The Daily Show’ did not result in my arrest. It just happened that they used my interview on the show as evidence against me. They wanted to say I was a spy, in absence of any evidence they used ‘The Daily Show’ sketch. I had a couple choices when I was released. They threatened me to stay silent, but I chose to write the article for Newsweek and chose to write the book. I reappeared on ‘The Daily Show’ as part of the book’s publication, I became friendly with Jon, and the rest is history. Psychologically, was it difficult to relive the incarceration through the film version, was it a different type of closure than the book?

Bahari: Writing the book, talking about what happened to me in Iran, and what still happens to my colleagues and friends there – in addition to the film – was all part of the process. It’s a selfish healing process, because I am in a position to be able to talk about it, and I’ve used the platforms available. I also believe I have a responsibility to communicate what is going on in Iran with other people. Yes, I was there during the filming and saw the final results, but my personal emotions are nothing compared to my friends and colleagues that are still there. The title of the book that was adapted for the movie, “They Came for Me” is part of the famous Martin Niemöller quote. How does this quote inform your activism regarding other political or journalist prisoners?

Bahari: It expresses that we are part of the same profession and we have to support each other. I am here talking to you because of the actions of all my friends and colleagues at Newsweek, the BBC and other news organizations took on my behalf. I believe it is my responsibility to do the same thing for others as was done for me. It’s pretty obvious that the 2009 Iranian election was fixed for President Ahmadinejad. Should a fixed election still shock us in 2014?

Bahari: I think the Iranian government regrets that they fixed the election to that degree. If Mousavi, for example, had come to power, he wouldn’t have toppled the government at all. They were just afraid of any kind of change, and these governments will bend until they break. So this is the tragedy of totalitarian regimes, they never learn from history. They could have reformed themselves in 2009, but they chose to make it look too obvious. What moral spirituality does the state lose when it dominates its will over individuals for perceived or real dissent. Is the bureaucracy of such a society doomed to failure?

Bahari: Of course. Whenever a government allows itself to interfere with every aspect of a citizen’s lives, then any act is perceived as anti-government. Beyond the essentials, government should not be concerning itself with everyday aspects of people’s lives – how they dress, what they eat, how they live – it becomes a political act.

The resources spent on monitoring all this and the paranoia created by these perceived threats damages the government much more that the people. The people adapt, and the new generation of Iranians don’t even care about the government. The actions of this extreme government oversight then become counterproductive. Is the tribalism associated with religion – for example in the so-called Islamic State and Judaism – unfair to the society at large, especially in the age of information, or is is just connected to a sense of wanting to belong?

Maziar Bahari
Maziar Bahari in Chicago, October 24th, 2014
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

Bahari: What we are going through in the information age is difficult to comprehend for many 20th Century dictatorships and religions, who are used to controlling communications. They can’t necessarily do that with the new technologies, so they resort to these tribes again, and still try to shut down the internet, as they formerly did with broadcast and print. But people find a way to reconnect much easier than before, and this is the age in which tribalism battles this new globalism. Iranians, for example, want more to belong to the globe, not the tribes. What is a major concern now for journalism is the shrinking funding for real investigation, as newspapers lose revenue and media control is in the hands of fewer people. Of course, the internet is making strides, but the funding is different. How can modern journalism make a difference in today’s new climate?

Bahari: We’re entering an era in which professional journalists are becoming less prevalent, and they become more like editors in the age of citizen journalism. I compare what is happening to journalism now as what happened to modern art in the early 20th Century. You had a deconstruction of form and new masters like Picasso emerged. Of course there were many others producing crap. I think the new citizen journalists need curators. However, it is difficult to make a living doing it now. This new model may have to be funded by foundations or corporations or even governments. It will be difficult, but it will evolve. What do you fear that your child will have to face in the evolution of our modern world?

Bahari: She will be bombarded by information, and as a parent I worry about all those choices, And besides the many information choices, with social media she will become a separate medium herself. That is a big responsibility, and she will have to both consume this information and disseminate it. With your overall life experience, what can you say to me and your fellow travelers about how we can achieve peace, and implement that peace upon the powerful?

Bahari: Whenever you make educated decisions, whenever you think before making a decision, you are doing something positive for this world. Whenever you doubt governments or institutions regarding their monopolizing of truth, and try to find out something about what you don’t know, you are doing something good for this world. All governments would love their citizens not to make individual decisions or doubt them. The best way to change the system peacefully is to keep doubting those types of institutions on a regular basis.

“Rosewater” opens everywhere on November 14th. Featuring Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodia, Haluk Bilginer, Shohreh Aghdashioo, Gloshifteh Farahani, Claire Foy and Jason Jones. Based on the book by Maziar Bahari, “They Came for Me.” Screenplay adapted and directed by Jon Stewart. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2014 Patrick McDonald,

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