#Protest, Humor, Social Media and Lascivious Massages
In 2009, Iranian Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari returned to his mother’s home in Iran to cover the controversial election – it was controversial because it actually seemed that an opposition candidate had a chance of defeating then president (and president until 2013) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When the sitting leader was announced the victory with a near unbelievable majority, protestors took to the streets. Called the Green Revolution or the Green Wave, this movement demanded their votes be counted and Bahari made the ‘mistake’ of filming the unrest. His footage, as well as a comical ‘interview’ he granted The Daily Show in which he pretended to be a spy, led to his being arrested, imprisoned, interrogated, and tortured by the Revolutionary Guards. After a public outcry led by his pregnant wife and his 80-year-old mother, which found its way to the vocal support of Hillary Clinton, Bahari was released. “When I came out of prison I wrote about 50,000 words, and out of the 50,000 words there was a 10,000 word article in Newsweek magazine,” he says, “and after I was out a month I met Jon Stewart. And Jon was interested in producing a film based on my story.”
This Thursday, ROSEWATER, The Dailey Show Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, arrives in theatres, first with a live Q&A screening with Stewart and Bahari and hosted by Stephen Colbert through Fathom Events, and then in wide release the next day. I had a chance to sit down with Maziar Bahari last week to discuss the film, and the power of media, social media, and comedy in protest.
As Stewart shopped the idea of the film, Bahari wrote his memoir Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival. The book, like the eventual film, both contain a tremendous amount humorous moments considering the circumstances. “The whole experience was if someone had read Kafka and thought ‘it’s not absurd enough, it’s not surreal enough,” he says, “so even when I was brutally beaten and insulted by the interrogator, he was saying these idiotic things, I was thinking to myself that ‘I’m going to write about this as soon as I get out of here.’” One sequence (both in the book and the film) involves the interrogator (referred to as Rosewater because of his smell) focusing on the number of women’s names in his cell phone and assuming these are all women with whom Bahari was having sex. Bahari says he couldn’t get the idea of the Monty Python sketch out of his head, “Nudge Nudge” in which Eric Idle assumes everything Terry Jones says about his wife is extremely sexual. “’Is your wife and goer?’ ‘Yes she likes to travel.’ ‘I bet she does, I bet she does.’” He quotes, continuing “It was like that, ‘Okay did you have sex with this woman?’ ‘No.’ ‘Why do you have three numbers for her?’” For Bahari, the humor really comes out of observation and culture. “Whenever someone thinks they have a monopoly on truth, and whenever people think that what they think is right, it’s just funny,” he explains, “especially when people are so misguided and ignorant and they spend all their time in dark interrogation rooms beating people, insulting people and then they think … the world outside of here is corrupt.”
After a year and a half, and after the book came out, “Jon said ‘fuck this, we cannot wait anymore because it’s a timely story, it has to be done quickly,’” Bahari says, and Stewart took on the burden of adapting the story for the screen himself. He sent many drafts, always looking for Bahari’s suggestions and corrections and Bahari was present on set every day. “He’s a genius, he believes in collaboration and admitting that he doesn’t know everything,” he says of Stewart’s work on the film. Bahari thinks the final version of the film is very close to his own personal vision when they first started discussing it four years ago but reminds me: “it’s John Stewart’s film, and my book is my book. It’s a 300 page book and this is a 95 minutes film.” Bahari is also very happy that the heart and soul of the film, despite being dominated by his character and that of Rosewater, still belongs to three women: his mother, his sister, and his wife. “I think through choosing those three actresses portraying those three amazing women, Jon is giving the film that,” he says, “but also an audience I think the film would lack if there were not such strong female presence in the film. My character is basically sustained through the memories of those women, and the love of those women.” Bahari considers the film a family story, even though it’s set in a prison and deals with torture and politics.
In fact, to me it seems his family’s business is prison. Both his sister and his father served time in jail, and the film presents these fantastic dialogues between Bahari and the two of them, certainly his mind trying to keep sharp in solitary confinement. I wondered if experiencing this story, essentially for the third time, and through Gael Garcia Bernal portraying him, was ever difficult for him. “If you don’t talk about the psychological scars, they get deeper and they remain fresh,” he responds, “I think writing that Newsweek story and writing a book and working on the script and the film and doing all these interviews, these are all part of the healing process.” When the film premiered in Toronto, a friend of his who went through a similar experience came up to him; “and he hugged me after the film and he was crying,” Bahari says, “he said… ‘I have not been talking about this, what happened to me, and I’m still really traumatized.”
The strength of the film, however, lies not in one man’s individual struggle, but the way we see the power a group of individuals can have. “Basically what we are going through right now,” Bahari explains, “we are witnessing two different movements; one movement is citizens trying to gain their rights as citizens.” This is a movement that happens time and time again in countries ruled by totalitarian governments. The difference is that it is now being bolstered by the second movement. Bahari continues: “information is becoming democratized. People have more access to information. People are using information in order to undermine these authoritarian regimes. That has happened because of the advent of digital technology and the Internet, but also because of social media, Facebook and Twitter.” At Twitter headquarters last month in San Francisco, Bahari told Twitter employees that he thought in 2009 Iranians used Twitter for the first time in a social movement. “After of course Twitter was quite important in Ukraine, in Arab countries, in Hong Kong, in this country in Ferguson,” he says, but “twitter, social media in general, they become the new media for resistance.”
There is a phenomenal sequence in the film when the Bahari charater rides through the streets Tehran seeing everyone not just another person, but as a series of hashtags, illustrating the power of their words as a message to the world. One of the primary plot points of the film involves his driver, who has set up an array of satellite dishes on the roof, calling themselves ‘students’ and receiving an education in the world outside their borders. “With the democratization of information, democratization of devices, democratization of the media in general,” Bahari says, “I think more people are becoming media themselves. Every person is becoming a medium. It doesn’t matter what you have access to electricity, or if you have access to technology anymore.” He mentions India where, even in sections where there is no electricity, people go to local centers to charge their phones, then dial-in to a service that transcribes their messages and puts them out on the internet, making them reporters. “All these different movements help each other, and somehow teach each other lesson,” he says, “the Egyptian activists were saying they learned a lot from Serbian activists.” Right now, Facebook and Twitter are changing people’s ability to affect change. In ten years time, there might be something even newer.
The film is a powerful one, but it works because it never feels like one man’s struggle. It’s one man’s story, but the struggle encompasses a new generation of citizens, ones that demand to be heard. And even though the Green Movement was not able to overturn the election, their dissent was and is inspiring to the world. Bahari himself, not one to shy away from taking a strong position, encourages everyone to doubt authority. “Always question the authority,” he says, “never accept what the government says as the ultimate truth. Never accept what the institution say is the truth, whether it’s the church, whether it’s corporations, there always has to be room for questioning and doubting the institutions. … with the availability of social media, you can do that easily.”
ROSEWATER opens nationwide Friday with a special sneak preview at select theaters through Fathom Events on Thursday.