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Interview: Iran's 'Rosewater' Journalist Maziar Bahari Is 'Not Expecting A Revolution'

"Rosewater" film director Jon Stewart, Iranian subject Maziar Bahari, and Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal (left to right) pose at the Toronto film festival on September 8.

Iranian-born journalist Maziar Bahari, whose detention and torture by Iranian authorities are given cinematic treatment in “Rosewater,” a new film by U.S. political satirist and “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, tells RFE/RL that he wants officials in Tehran to watch the film and rethink their actions.

RFE/RL: Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, “Rosewater,” is based on your incarceration in Iran during the 2009 antigovernment protests and the book you co-authored about your experience, “Then They Came For Me.” How closely does the film hew to what you really went through?

Maziar Bahari: The film is a good interpretation of the book, and the book is 350 pages about a life story and also 118 days of incarceration and many memories during that time, many other events. So we had to adapt the book for the film, but I think the film is true to the truth of the story. The reality is different here and there, but that’s not very important. The truth of the story is there.

RFE/RL: The film shows the psychological torture you were subjected to, including solitary confinement and sessions with your interrogator, whom you nicknamed "Mr. Rosewater" because of his perfume. But it does not show some of the physical torture you experienced. Why did you decide to tone down the torture?

Bahari: We didn’t want to include physical torture that much, first of all because you don’t want to numb the audience to the torture. And we see many films that are borderline torture porn right now, and we didn’t want to create that. The way that Jon Stewart describes it is that he wants it to be like the shark in “Jaws.” So he doesn’t want it to be present from the beginning. But it always lingers in the background.

And also, I think what I went through and some other people went through right after the [disputed 2009 presidential] election [in Iran], were anomalies in Iran or many other countries because most countries are not sadistic. They just want to serve their own purposes, and it is usually served through psychological torture because physical torture has proven not to be that effective -- because you either break and you just lie or you reach nirvana state and then you think you’re invincible. But with psychological torture, you can torture the prisoner as much as you want and then you can manipulate that person. And the worst kind of psychological torture is, of course, solitary confinement.

RFE/RL: How did you feel when you first saw the final version of the film?

Bahari: Jon and I, we talked about the film before he started to write the script because we wanted someone else to write the script and we sent it to different people. They were either busy or they were not interested or they wanted too much money. So after a year and a half he decided to do it himself, and we worked on the script together. And then I was on the set every day, so I saw the footage, then I saw the rough cuts, then I saw the final rough cuts.

But I remember when I saw the first rough cut, it was quite a moving moment, and I think it was a seminal moment in my friendship with Jon Stewart. I remember I was on my own in the editing room, and I didn’t know what was going on outside. I knew that the film was not finished, but what I was seeing was a great film already. It needed a little bit of adjustment here and there. And then when I opened the door, I saw Jon Stewart holding his three-legged dog. He was really afraid of my reaction, and he didn’t know what to expect. I was pleased with the film. I went there and I hugged him, I hugged the editor, and I think from that moment on he really felt comfortable with the process.

WATCH the official trailer for "Rosewater":

RFE/RL: How was it to work with Jon Stewart?

Bahari: He’s great. He’s a very good manager. He manages a huge team on a daily basis because “The Daily Show” is a big production, and also he’s very collaborative, he’s very open to ideas and suggestions and, like many geniuses I’ve met in my life, he’s very quick in absorbing people’s ideas and giving them his own twist. And also he’s very funny, which really helped us in Jordan because it was not a very easy shoot. It was really hot, it was during the Ramadan, the Jordanian film industry is less than perfect, less than prepared. So he really had to entertain people in order to mobilize them.

RFE/RL: What do you want people to take away from the film?

Bahari: I want people to think about what journalists are going through on a daily basis, not only in Iran but all around the world, in different countries. Ideally, I like when people watch the news to look at what is happening behind the scenes and have a better understanding. But also, ideally I’d like some people within the Iranian government to watch the film and regard it as a mirror of their actions, see how ridiculous they are, see how brutal they are. And if they are relatively rational -- there are many rational people within the Iranian government, they’re just serving a bad system -- just to rethink their ideas and try to change a little bit. I’m not expecting a revolution or anything. Just a little change would be fine.

RFE/RL: Iranians usually access the latest Western movies very quickly. Do you know if black-market copies of “Rosewater” are already available in Iran?

Bahari: I haven’t heard anything from Iran, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the film is available in Iran within a week or so.

RFE/RL: A deadline for world powers and Iran to reach a lasting nuclear agreement is less than 10 days away, and there is talk of an extension. How do you think a potential deal would impact the domestic situation in Iran? Do you think it can improve the human rights situation by giving President Hassan Rohani leverage?

Bahari: I don’t think the government of Iran -- neither the president nor the supreme leader -- have any plans to improve the human rights situation. But I think the human rights situation in Iran will go through different phases. Ultimately I think it will improve in the long run, but in the short run there will be some setbacks because there are some ideological elements or people whose material interest is in suppression.