Jon Stewart's debut film, Rosewater, which was released on Friday, tells the story of an extremely rough few months in the life of Maziar Bahari. The journalist was covering the 2009 Iranian election and the subsequent protests for Newsweek, and he happened to hook up with an American TV crew shooting a hilarious, irreverent segment involving fake spies for The Daily Show. Not long after, he was arrested—or, arguably, kidnapped—by the Iranian government and interrogated for months about being a (real) spy.
How much you like Rosewater is going to depend heavily on how much you can tolerate earnestness. Still, the compelling character dynamic between Bahari and his interrogator—played with surprising vulnerability by Danish character actor Kim Bodnia—should be enough to draw you in. Two key screenwriting decisions make that onscreen relationship unusual: It doesn't present the viewer with a monster to hate, and despite the situation being a living farce, it rarely pushes for laughs.
The movie version Bahari, played by Gael García Bernal, is a huge film buff, so I thought I'd see what Bahari thought of my observations about the movie version of his life.
VICE: In the movie it looked like you had a lot of banned DVDs when you were there. Were those bootlegs? Like that Sopranos DVD?
Maziar Bahari: No, no, no, I had an official one—I bought it in England and took it back to Iran. I had about 2,000 tapes and DVDs, a very big collection. I started collecting films even in the 80s when I went back to Iran; I brought some of my collection that I have in London to Tehran.
Did your whole collection get confiscated?
No, only some of it. And I was very lucky because some of them that could put me in danger weren't confiscated. For example, I had an eight-hour interview with a prostitute in Iran, and they didn't see that. But then they looked at anything that had any words that they knew in English that could be sexual, or like a picture of a knife, or the letters p-o-r-n. That's why they were interested in The Sopranos. And also any film that had a little bit of nudity on the cover, like Pasolini's [Teorema].
Pasolini made some dirty stuff. That could have really gotten you in trouble.
Like Salò? No, I didn't have a copy of Salò. I watched that film once, and I really cannot watch it again—it's very disturbing.
Do you consider yourself a filmmaker?
I've made at least twenty long documentaries, and dozens of short news documentaries.
You were on the set of Rosewater almost every day. What kind of director is Jon Stewart?
Basically, he's a very good manager. He manages a group of at least 200 people who work for The Daily Show on a daily basis, but he's also the executive producer of The Colbert Report and he has other projects, so he's a very good manager. I think one of the good qualities of a good director is to be able to manage people and be resourceful and also have grace under pressure. In that sense, he was very good.
Tell me about how he directs, creatively speaking.
He had a very clear vision of what he wanted, [but] he was very open to ideas. He was very open to criticism, suggestions, and he also sought suggestions from different people—he was asking, "So should we do this? Should we try this?"
Did that make him seem like he wasn't in control, though?
Most of the people who were professionals, like Bobby Bukowski, the director of photography—professionals who have worked with some of the best directors in the world—[and they] said that it didn't feel like working with a first-time director.
As a film, is Rosewater a comedy?
Honestly, it's a comedy of the absurd, like in Eastern Europe in the 50s to the 70s. They had this movement of, you know, absurd comedy like Ionesco and there were many writers who wrote these absurd comedies, but they're like really comic tragedies. I think the film has a lot in common with [writers] like Kafka.
Kafka, but less grotesque. The antagonist is actually sympathetic in a way.
He's not a monster; that's the whole point. During my incarceration, while I was writing the book and while I was working on the script with Jon on the set, we tried not to portray [him] as a monster. [Monsters] don't have any vulnerabilities, weaknesses; they're not interesting.
But you lived it. Didn't you seem him as a monster?
F rom a selfish point of view, while I was in prison, if I looked at him as a monster, I would not be able to exploit his vulnerabilities and weaknesses to my own advantage—to keep him from beating me and also to manipulate him and, you know, give him information that would satisfy his need for information.
He wanted you to admit you were a spy. Isn't a journalist kind of like a spy?
For Americans, it's not very difficult to understand that. But for many Iranians and many officials in the Iranian government, anyone who has any kind of contact with foreigners can be regarded as a spy, and that's why they have strict laws against military personnel and intelligence personnel who have any kind of contact with foreigners. But that's not very different from what many people view Muslims in this country, in the US.
I hear you're working on behalf of journalists lately.
We have a website called IranWire.com [link in Farsi], where we give a forum to many Iranian citizen journalists and professional journalists who cannot express themselves in Iran. So I think there's space for expression—that is what is really vital for citizen journalists and even professional journalists to have in different countries.
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(A previous version overstated the number of films Mr. Bahari has made. We regret the error.)