Playing as part of the 2014 BFI London Film Festival’s Debate Gala strand, Rosewater is the debut film of director Jon Stewart, also known as the long-standing host of the satirical US news show The Daily Show. The film’s plot traces the fate of real-life London-based Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, imprisoned and harshly interrogated in Iran for filming footage of protests against what was widely seen as a rigged election in 2009. He was eventually freed after mounting international pressure from Western politicians and the media. The film was a deeply personal project for Stewart, as Bahari had actually appeared in a Daily Show segment filmed in Tehran shortly before being detained, thus leaving Stewart feeling personally connected to his fate, and later driven to take on the subject matter for his debut feature once Bahari was safely home after 118 gruelling days in prison. The interview with Stewart is below, and you can read Smoke Screen's review of the film here.
Why was it so important to make this film now?
I've always wanted to sit in those comfy directors chairs, but if you’re not a director you are not allowed to sit in them! No, seriously, Maziar and I became friendly after he was released, and his memoir is so compelling and well-observed, analytical and beautiful that I was honoured that he would trust me to even try to film it.
What is your opinion on the state of US media today given how it seems so driven by special interests?
Well, certainly commercial interests. But part of the difficulty there is that we have created this 24 hour, seven days a week infrastructure for news, that is really built for catastrophes, for earthquakes and events like 9/11. In the absence of grand stories, rather than going into hibernation, I think that the media today is incentivised to sensationalism and urgency. They take ordinary news and amplify it to the level of catastrophe. It has created this incredible momentum towards urgency and fear and war, and I think it has been really destructive force for American politics in general. Apart from that though, we are really good! Good sports coverage!
How did you decide on taking artistic license in some scenes, for example during the sections of the films where Maziar hallucinates the figures of his dead sister and father whilst in prison? Does that come from the book?
There was some artistic license. Those scenes are sort of an embodiment of Maziar’s ability to sustain himself in that installation. One of the things that is so torturous about isolation I think is that it removes your ability to process the isolation and your distress. I used to work in restaurants when I was trying to become a comic, and there would be little things during the day, for example, like a guy sitting two people at a four top, and the rest of my day would involve me chatting to my friends along the line of; “You believe this fucking guy? He sat two people at a four top!” That is your outlet for all that occurs to you. But imagine you have removed from you your ability to process what is happening to you, with that reinforcement your friends. Suddenly you are alone, so you turn it internal, and you rely on family, and culture and your history and experience. It was a way of trying to express that cinematically, as it is so interior.
As a first time filmmaker, what have you learned from the experience?
I honestly feel that the best thing I learned about it is to trust your discomfort, and to never be afraid to admit your shortcomings. Hire people around you who know what they are doing, and who can raise red flags as often and as early as possible. Your best ability is to recognise when someone has a great idea or when one of your ideas is shit, and you don't want to waste anyone’s time pursuing that.
What was the impact on Maziar, seeing his story visualised?
Well, part of what is interesting about him is his ability to compartmentalise things, and I think that is what allowed him to write such a compelling memoir. The lesson of the film really is: “don’t arrest journalists, they are trained to remember shit, they pay attention and analyse and have an eye for articulating the parts of their experience that you might not want people to know.” That being said, on set there would be moments on set where I would say, “Hey Maziar, can you cover here and tell me if this is what the cell looked like, etc etc?” And I would suddenly think, “I am that asshole, I am that guy making him relive it!” But it was the moments with the family that were much tougher for him; the scenes with him and his sister. I think he had more difficulty with those emotionally.
Rosewater played at the 2014 BFI London Film Festival and is out wide release on 14 November in the US, with UK release TBC