While in Tehran reporting on the heavily disputed 2009 elections, in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad maintained his grip on the presidency, Iranian-Canadian journalist and filmmaker Maziar Bahari was arrested and imprisoned for 118 days—107 spent in solitary confinement—on the trumped up charge of spying … for Newsweek. Their evidence: an interview he did with “The Daily Show” in which Jason Jones is comically dressed as a spy.
The ways in which this story is simultaneously harrowing and preposterous are at the heart of Bahari’s memoir of his imprisonment, Then They Came for Me, and first-time writer-director Jon Stewart’s film adaptation, Rosewater, starring Gael Garcia Bernal. For Bahari, humor wasn’t a defense mechanism; it was a vital component to understanding the bigger picture of the Iranian regime and the paranoia at its heart.
“Whenever you think that you have a monopoly on truth,” says Bahari, in an interview with DigBoston, “whenever you think you know everything, when the word of yourself or your supreme leader is the final word, and then you have to act in an ignorant fashion to carry on the wishes of your leader, it’s just funny. What happened to me in prison, it wasn’t funny at the time, because I was blindfolded and I was in solitary confinement or in an interrogation room. But with hindsight … it’s just laughable. My experience inside of Iran’s prison was [as] if they had read Kafka and then they thought it was not ridiculous enough and they added a bit of Monty Python to it.”
Rosewater follows Bahari as he arrives in Iran, with credentials in order, and is thrown into the dramatic political climate of the budding Green Revolution in support of presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. After the regime’s crackdown on demonstrations turns violent, Bahari is arrested and subjected to intimidation and psychological torture by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (which they learned from the Shah, who learned it from the US).
“When you are in solitary confinement in Iran, you are in a room with marble walls and relatively clean,” says Bahari. “You are deprived of all your senses. You cannot see anything except for the walls. You cannot taste anything but the food tastes like cardboard. You cannot touch anything except for the wall. You cannot hear anything because the walls are thick. And you cannot smell anything because it’s so clean and solid. So when I tell people I spent 107 days in solitary confinement and they ask me, ‘Were you also tortured?’ I find this really redundant, because that is really the worst kind of torture.”
There is a historical precedent for Iran to suspect foreign espionage, even if the authorities take this suspicion to an absurd extreme. Bahari continues: “[Iran] has been at the cross section of different cultures and civilizations … When the [interrogator in the film] goes on the 1953 coup spiel, there was a coup devised by the CIA and the Americans, it’s true, and that is why [Iranians are suspicious of] the most recent examples of foreign intervention in Iran. As a nation, Iran does not trust foreigners, and that has created paranoia. But this regime really takes advantage of the paranoia, and really takes advantage of the people’s nationalistic sentiments.”
It is not easy to place such a sensitive, detailed chapter of your life in the hands of another person, but Stewart’s film shows respect for Bahari’s experience (and the incidental role he played in it) as well as his deep appreciation for Iran beyond the propaganda. “The film is giving a different image of Iran,” says Bahari. “If there was another filmmaker who had a more simple outlook at the world, I wouldn’t have trusted him or her with the project. But I trusted Jon, because I trusted that he also believed in this nuanced version of Iran and also I think that he was interested in the story as well.”
Beyond its indictment of the Iranian authorities, Rosewater carries a message for those who might use the film to help beat the drums of war. “I think it’s very important to have these kinds of films, not only about Iran, but also about other cultures as well. To show people that when you are bombing a country, you are not only bombing the regime, the bad guys. It’s not like an Arnold Schwarzenegger film … You’re targeting a nation. And this nation, it has enlightened people, educated people, students, mothers, and children, people who are very similar to you.”
ROSEWATER | RATED R | IN THEATERS FRI 11.14.14
BONUS FEATURES: STREAMS
Totally unrelated to the similarly named Morgan Freeman snorefest, And Along Came a Spider is one of Maziar Bahari’s most fascinating documentaries. Bahari interviews convicted serial killer Saeed Hanaei, who murdered 16 prostitutes in the city of Mashad. Far from remorseful, Hanaei has branded his actions as religiously motivated activism against “street women.” Every angle is explored, including testimony from other prostitutes in the city and the trial judge who rejected Hanaei’s defense. Bahari’s documentary is a frightening, gripping, and enlightening glimpse into the toxic combination of social and societal pressures in modern Iran.
Smuggled out of Iran into Cannes on a flash drive hidden inside a birthday cake, This Is Not a Film was made during the house arrest of Jafar Panahi as he appealed his prison sentence and filmmaking ban. Less a chronicle of his confinement and more a glimpse into a creative, determined soul battling against a fearful yet totalitarian state, it also is perhaps the ultimate censorship backfire in history: By placing Panahi under house arrest, the authorities laid the foundation for his masterpiece.