Interview: Jon Stewart talks about his directorial debut Rosewater
The release of Jon Stewart’s Rosewater, his feature writing and directorial debut, marks the end of a particular journey that began with a rather typical hilarious and biting segment on his long running television show.
During the 20009 Iranian elections, The Daily Show reporter Jason Jones interviewed Iranian Canadian Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari. In the segment, Jones states that Bahari is a spy. Not long after, in an oppressive move by the government, Bahari is arrested and held for 118 days in prison, much of which was spent in solitary confinement.
The segment from The Daily Show was used as evidence for his imprisonment; those in charge did not understand satire.
“Guilt is a powerful motivator for my people,” joked Stewart while promoting the film during the Toronto International Film Festival. There were admittedly feelings of responsibility for Bahari’s jailing, at least initially.
“Guilt is not a sustainable emotion,” Stewart continued. “It’s one that would be corrosive to a process of telling a story if that were a driving force. Guilt was immediate and almost disabused immediately, by Maziar and other people that had been arrested, by this amount of repression.”
“So yeah, there was a moment of ‘My God, the power of The Daily Show, I must make this right!’ joked Stewart. “But Maziar and his family made very clear that this was a huge crackdown by authoritarian regime.”
Stewart was joined by Bahari in Toronto, and both stressed that the film was based on the book Then They Came For Me, written by Bahari. He vowed while in confinement to remember everything and eventually write it down.
“The book is a reflection of the reality, the film is a translation of the book,” said Bahari. “The reality of the authoritarian regime is they are funny.” Indeed, it’s a film that while dark and unnerving is filled with both humour and lightness, and includes a dance scene, jokes about porn, and entertaining hallucinations.
“When you think you can control everyone, everyone forever, and create the perfect society, that s a delusion, you have to have half a brain,” continued Bahari. “That is funny, it lends itself to satire, that’s why Jon s successful with young people, they don’t have the dogma of the older people.”
Portrayed by Gael Garcia Bernal, Bahari in Rosewater endures physical, emotional, and mental pressure – torture, really. He is kept in solitude, told no one is looking for him, and forced to live out each day being questioned, accused, and then dismissed.
“They think I am the perpetrator of these tweets and Facebook messages,” said Bahari. “Essentially all authoritarian regimes are 20th century. They can handle short wave radios, analog; they don’t know what to do with Internet. They are still using the same methods of suppression.”
His story and the one Stewart translates to film is both a singular and a universal story, for similar unjust imprisonments happened to other journalists during those 2009 Iranian elections; as they have happened and continue to happen to journalists around the world. It is the goal of both of them to shed light on this all too common and unjust occurrence.
“In prison or when the interrogator was a saying something interesting, stupid, moronic , it was painful of course, but I was thinking, I will remember this and as soon as I come out and write this down.”
“Try not to incarcerate journalists,” joked Stewart. “They remember shit, trained in detail and absurdity and commentary and his ability to translate the experience.”