Interview: Gael Garcia Bernal talks Rosewater
“It’s not Argo. It’s not about showing how cool the West is.”
The goal of Jon Stewart’s feature film writing and directing debut Rosewater, says star Gael Garcia Bernal, is to tell an intimate story that is universal, a singular tale about one journalist’s plight against an authoritarian regime that is similar to others around the world.
“It’s not about Iran specificity,” continues Bernal, who was promoting the film during the Toronto International Film Festival. Following the true story of journalist Maziar Bahari who was unjustly imprisoned during the 2009 elections in Iran, Rosewater seeks to show what happened to too many reporters who cover such totalitarian governments. “It’s something that is happening everywhere, it’s not Jon’s intention to overthrow the Islamic republic, it is more about showing that this goes on in the world.”
Bernal portrays Bahari, whose memoir Then They Came For Me inspires the film. Bernal, born in Mexico, researched extensively to try and relate to what Maziar endured across 118 days in jail, much of which was spent in solitary confinement.
“Fortunately Maziar is a very modern person, very easy going, loving,” said Bernal. “He surrendered to the fact that this is an interpretation of an interpretation. I’m Mexican, I’ve never been to Iran, can’t dare to say that I understand or identify anything he’s been through, it’s so tough. All I can do is have empathy, get incredibly close to what he felt, and that is where we find the common ground.”
“What we’re talking about is a bigger issue, that’s the book Maziar wrote, something bigger,” continued Bernal. “That’s where you connect as an actor, and then you get a lot of details, ask a lot of questions, at the end of the day, no one will point it out, not one will pick up, but it helps you.”
Bernal, like many others, was surprised at the amount of humour and lightness that appears in a story about a man being jailed for nearly four months. Bahari is tortured, abused verbally, physically, and deprived of sensation and contact in confinement. He has a handler who tends to him daily, continuing to press him to answer the same questions; he is accused of being a spy, and included in the so-called evidence is a clip from Stewart’s satirical Daily Show. There is plenty of absurdity throughout.
“That was a way of surviving it,” said Bernal. “He was fake-executed; how hard is that? He felt he there was something inside him, that there is a horizon here, it’s something so moving about the whole thing. It gave him strength, he survived. At that point we all in those moments tack on to a spiritual aspect, an explanation that’s bigger than to surviving, it’s our natural instinct.”
“There was a point he says, one of the guards was telling him were going to kill you, you’re gonna die, you’ll be thrown off the mountain…and then he closed the door and Maziar says, ‘that’s not a way to say goodbye.’ He is so surrendering to the fact that could have happened, but that’s when science helps a lot, you understand that the world has been here for how many millions of years, humanity has been here for this little amount, and you’re saying ‘this is mine, we’re gonna kill you for it.’”
So through the terror is light in a film that seeks to put the viewer next to Bahari as he endures unjust jail and confinement, to find both the horror and the humour, and to understand that this is not an isolated case.