The journalist profiled in Jon Stewart's 'Rosewater' finds dark humor In Iran's prisons

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Marco Werman: Maziar Bahar’s story is deadly serious. He’s an Iranian journalist and filmmaker who spent 118 days in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison after Iran’s disputed 2009 elections. But in his memoir, Bahari also makes room for the more absurd and comedic aspects of his story, like the time he was interviewed on “The Daily Show,” and how that interview was later used against him by his captors in Iran. That scene is also included in the new film, “Rosewater,” which is based on Bahar’s memoir.


[Audio excerpt from Rosewater]


Werman: Rosewater is written and directed by The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. In the film and in real life, Bahar’s Iranian interrogators attempt to connect him to four Western intelligence agencies: Britain’s MI6, Israel’s Mossad, America’s CIA and, get ready for this one, Newsweek.


Maziar Bahari: When I asked him “Do you mean Newsweek magazine?” They said “Yes. “Newsweek’ magazine is part of the intelligence apparatus of the United States.” So, in the absence of any kind of evidence, because I was not a spy, they brought forward this ridiculous evidence, including my appearance on The Daily Show, which happened to be the most intelligent piece of evidence that they had. They asked me what my connection was with Anton Chekhov, the 19th century Russian playwright, because I was part of the Anton Chekhov fanclub on Facebook. Then the icing on the cake was my connection with Pauly Shore, because I was also a member of a fanclub on Facebook for Pauly Shore, me and I guess 5 other people, and they wanted to know what kind of a Zionist spy Pauly Shore is. ‘m still actually trying to find out what kind of a spy Pauly Shore.


Werman: Yeah, we all are. And just little psych acts too, like dialing “9.” You have to dial 9 to get a line out of Evin prison. Really?


Bahari: When you think about torture and torturers, it’s a job for many people. So, like any other employee, they go to work at 9 o’clock in the morning, they punch their card, they get overtime. Instead of being the bookkeeper, they have to beat people, insult people, humiliate them and then they go back to their families; they pay rent or they pay a mortgage. So, it’s a job and the interrogation room or the torture room is an office. In an accountant’s office, you have to dial 9 to have a line out.


Werman: I was fascinated by the relationship between you and your specialist, your torturer. How close did you get with him? Because the relationship kind of ebbs and flows, it’s really curious.


Bahari: I knew that I was fighting two different battles. On one hand, I had this physical battle that was lost from the beginning because I was the prisoner, I had the blindfold on and he was much stronger than me, he was a member of the Revolutionary Guards. But on the other hand, there was this psychological battle that I knew I could win because I was a more cultured person, I had traveled much more, I had a richer life than he had.


Werman: Was your position in that relationship clear at first? Because it seems like you kind of evolve into how powerful --


Bahari: In my head it was clear from the beginning because if he had a different life, if he had a life like me, he wouldn’t choose that job, because it’s a horrible job to spend all your time in a dark room insulting people, beating people, lying to people. So, I tried to look at him as a human being, not as a monster, because when you regard someone as a monster, then it’s a lost battle because you can never defeat a monster. But if you look at people as human beings, then you can find vulnerabilities in them, you can find weaknesses and then you can use that weakness or vulnerability to your advantage. So, my interrogator was basically a high school bully. He was an old man who behaved like a teenager. He had a wife; he couldn’t go to his wife, so he was in this dark room all the time. I knew that he was really horny because he kept on talking about sex and was very interested in my sex life. So, as you see in the film, I manage to take advantage of that curiosity through those massage stories.


Werman: Another moment of humor is where he thinks that every DVD that you own is pornography, like “The Sopranos.”


Bahari: Exactly, and it’s a good thing that he didn’t see my collection of “Porky” movies, because otherwise he would be really interested in that.


Werman: ‘m curious to know, who in Tehran do you think today would you most like to see this movie?


Bahari: ‘d like my interrogator and his bosses to see this film because the film really holds a mirror to them and they can see how ridiculous they are, they can see how brutal they are. ‘m sure they will. Unfortunately because of illegal DVDs and links, ‘m sure they will see it.


Werman: You’re not going to get any royalties from their viewing.


Bahari: Unfortunately, no. I don’t think Mr. Rosewater is going to pay $8 to see this film.


Werman: You just mentioned Mr. Rosewater. So, that was the nickname you gave to your torturer. That was the perfume or cologne he used to wear, right?


Bahari: Exactly. Because I could not see my torturer, I did not know his name --


Werman: You were wearing a blindfold.


Bahari: Exactly. I could recognize him from his smell, and like many other Iranian officials, he does not take a shower because he spends most of his time beating and insulting people, so he had to compensate his smell by putting rosewater perfume on. I called him Mr. Rosewater, and that’s where the name of the film comes from.


Werman: Let me ask you one final question, and that is about this interview that you gave Jason Jones from Comedy Central’s Daily Show. That interview is repeated in the movie Rosewater, and ‘m just wondering, how much did that incident -- because it turns into this piece of evidence, that Jason Jones is playing a spy and therefore your torturers say “A-ha, you are a spy, so you did this interview.”


Bahari: It didn’t have to do anything with my arrest because they had a plan for me. I could be on your show and they could charge you of seditioning a prisoner. I could be on “Two and a Half Men” and they could charge Charlie Sheen with sedition. So, in the absence of any kind of real evidence to prove that I was a spy, because I was not a spy, they brought forward this ridiculous evidence, including my appearance on The Daily Show.


Werman: The question I wanted to ask you was whether Jon Stewart ever told you how he felt when it was clear that the sober Iranian regime turned the hijinks of The Daily Show, his show, into a prison sentence for you?


Bahari: We have talked about it a lot and he doesn’t feel that he’s responsible because he has no control what some idiots in a prison in Iran thinks of his show or the way that those idiots can use an appearance of a person on his show. It didn’t have to do anything with Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, or anyone else.


Werman: Were you ever asked to play yourself in the film Rosewater?


Bahari: No, because I cannot act, even if my life depends on it. But I am in the film. ‘m like Waldo, ‘m somewhere in the film. So, it’s the audience’s challenge to spot me in the film.


Werman: I will rewatch the film and look for you, just like Alfred Hitchcock in the background. Maziar Bahari, very good to meet you. Thanks for the interview.


Bahari: It was very nice talking to you. Thanks so much.


Werman: The story of Iranian journalist Maziar Bahar’s imprisonment is told in the new film, Rosewater. It premiers in the US on Friday.