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In ‘Rosewater,’ remembering humor and humanity after torture

In 2009, journalist Maziar Bahari was held for months in solitary confinement in a Tehran prison after being charged with being a spy. He turned his real ordeal into a memoir, which has now been dramatized as "Rosewater," a new movie by Jon Stewart. Jeffrey Brown talks to Bahari and Stewart about appreciating how humor can humanize brutality and the importance of protecting press freedoms.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Finally tonight: Jon Stewart finds humor and humanity in a most unlikely place and in a very new way.

    Jeffrey Brown is back with a look at the new film "Rosewater."

  • ACTOR:

    You must not just take his blood. You must take his hope

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In 2009, Maziar Bahari was held for 118 days in solitary confinement in a Tehran prison, a very real ordeal dramatized in the new film "Rosewater."

    Bahari was a Canadian citizen who'd returned to his native Iran as a journalist working for Western media organizations, his assignment, to cover a momentous election that would end in mass demonstrations and mass arrests, after reformer Mir Hossein Mousavi's challenge to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ended in a defeat widely condemned and discredited as fraudulent.

    The film shows how Bahari, played by actor Gael Garcia Bernal, met and interviewed protagonists on both sides, before being arrested and charged as a spy. He then endures interrogation by a man known only as Rosewater.

    One bit of absurdist evidence, an actual appearance in a Tehran cafe that Bahari had made on the Comedy Central program "The Daily Show."

  • MAN:

    What do I have in common with you?

  • MAN:

    Who is the number one enemy of the United States?

  • MAN:

    Al-Qaida.

  • MAN:

    Al-Qaida is also the number one enemy of Iran.

  • JON STEWART, “Rosewater”:

    And then you are going to back up and just go out of frame that way.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    That connection and the courage and even humor shown by Bahari even in the face of torture drew the real-life host of "The Daily Show," Jon Stewart, to the story, and to his first foray into directing a feature film.

  • JON STEWART:

    Here's what I want to accomplish right now.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The two would become good friends and then collaborators. They told me about it when we met earlier this week at the Newseum in Washington.

  • JON STEWART:

    It was compelling in the generational aspects of it, in his family, the fact that his father had suffered a similar fate under the shah. His sister had suffered it under Khomeini. He had suffered under Khamenei.

    Here are — these are regimes that are some Western-allied, some enemies of the West, all using authority to suppress their people and building these apparatuses.

  • MAZIAR BAHARI, “Rosewater”:

    When they arrested me, the questions were not about what I was doing. It was, you have to tell us, how did you put this politician in touch with the British Embassy? How did you put this politician in touch with the CIA?

  • JON STEWART:

    Right.

  • MAZIAR BAHARI:

    And I didn't know what to say. So in the absence of evidence to implicate me, they brought forward this ridiculous evidence, including my appearance on "The Daily Show."

  • JON STEWART:

    If someone wants to weaponize something innocuous, they're going to do it, whether it's the — you know, something banal that you have given them or something else.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's absurd, right?

  • JON STEWART:

    The interrogator…

  • MAZIAR BAHARI:

    It was as if they had read Kafka, and they thought it's a good manual to have — run a regime like that. And then they thought, it's not absurd enough, so let's just add a little bit of Monty Python to Kafka.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In his more familiar day job, of course, Jon Stewart tackles all kinds of topical issues. But the humor is very much in your face. It's a comedy show, after all.

  • JON STEWART:

    The Democrats got taken out back and Old Yellered by the American electorate.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    He took three months off from "The Daily Show" to shoot his film, most of it in Jordan, including in a real prison.

    Was it hard for you to play it straight?

  • JON STEWART:

    No, because the humor of it, so much of the humor in it is what appealed to me, Maziar's ability to — you know, in some ways, he's the canary in the coal mine for things that I believe, that even in the darkest time, humor is one of those elements that is — that you can retain your sense of humanity with.

    It can give you some comfort and act as some defense. There's sometimes a misperception, I think, of satire, that it is clownish, in the sense of — no disrespect to clowns, but that it's baggy pants farce. It's not. It's a way of expressing ideas and synthesize information that you truly believe in just using the tools of satire.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In the film, we see Bahari feeling he'd been forgotten and abandoned, not knowing that his family, employers, and political figures were waging a strong public campaign to get him released.

    Just days after that finally happened, his wife gave birth to their first child. He would write about it all in a memoir titled "Then They Came For Me."

  • MAZIAR BAHARI:

    In the film, we see that I humanize my interrogator who is brutalizing me.

  • JON STEWART:

    Who is also not presented as a monster.

  • MAZIAR BAHARI:

    Exactly, and not because of altruistic reasons, because of very selfish reasons, because, if I regard him as a monster, I cannot defeat him.

    So, when I'm — like many people who live in the West, when I'm stuck in the subway or the Metro in D.C. and it's hot and it's crowded, I say, oh, it's torture. But then, coming through that ordeal, I know that's not torture.

  • JON STEWART:

    He's not saying it's pleasant.

  • MAZIAR BAHARI:

    I'm not saying pleasant, but it's not torture.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's not torture.

  • MAZIAR BAHARI:

    Exactly.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    I read in another interview you did, you said: I consider "The Daily Show" and this movie a conversation that we are having with the culture and with people.

  • JON STEWART:

    Yes, that's right.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What's the conversation? Or what's the conversation about?

  • JON STEWART:

    Well, that — the conversation is about many different things.

    The conversation is about the space between the public face of our leaders vs. the private strategies that produce that face, the facade that's placed over it. The conversation is about corruption, whether it comes to governance or whether it comes to media. The conversation is about, you know, what is activism?

    This particular conversation is about the cost of oppression, and not just to Maziar, but to all the journalists and bloggers and activists who are being held.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's interesting. You spend a lot of time lampooning journalists on your show, and then you made a film where you're really honoring a journalist.

  • JON STEWART:

    Right, right, which seems completely logical.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It does?

  • JON STEWART:

    Well, absolutely, because the satire comes from a place of urging. It comes from a place of an ideal. It's — the humor only works as a counterpoint to seeing something that you feel is not at the level where you know it could be, of opportunity squandered.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And you now devote your life to press freedom issues?

  • MAZIAR BAHARI:

    Parts of my life.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes?

  • MAZIAR BAHARI:

    We have…

  • JON STEWART:

    He also goes out to eat some.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JON STEWART:

    He does…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes? Yes?

  • MAZIAR BAHARI:

    I am one of the privileged people who work for the Western media. People knew my name.

    Many of my friends and colleagues in Iran and in different countries, they do not have that international profile. So I have the responsibility to talk on their behalf and try to raise their profile.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And you have gone back to your day job.

  • JON STEWART:

    Still have my parking space, yes. So, that's…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Still have your parking space.

  • JON STEWART:

    Yes, that's right.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And are you going to keep that? Does this…

  • JON STEWART:

    Why? What did you hear about my parking space?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JON STEWART:

    Am I losing that?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Has this changed your thinking about your own future, about what you would like to do?

  • JON STEWART:

    I think it just, again, reinforces the idea of it as a longer journey, that it's not so much — you know, it's continuing to work on projects that I'm interested in and believe something is important to talk about with.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, Jon Stewart, Maziar Bahari, thank you.

  • JON STEWART:

    Thank you so much.

  • MAZIAR BAHARI:

    Thank you so much.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    We have more of Jeff's interview, including Jon Stewart's take on the importance of satire in his storytelling and how he came to direct "Rosewater." Find those clips on Art Beat.

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