When journalist Maziar Bahari was being held captive in an Iranian prison on the pretense of being an American spy, he couldn’t imagine that five years later, he’d be in a Soho hotel promoting a movie based on his ordeal. Even harder to imagine is that the movie, Rosewater, would mark the directorial debut of Jon Stewart, who adapted the Iranian-born, Canadian-raised Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me. Bahari, who in the film is played by Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, spent 118 maddening days in isolation after he was caught filming the violent protests of Iran’s Green Movement in 2009. His interrogator, who over the course of six months engaged in a battle of wills with Bahari, used faulty evidence–like an interview Bahari did with The Daily Show–to prove that the Newsweek journalist was spying for the American government. The result is an earnest and at times agonizing look at the absurdities and abominations of life under an authoritarian regime. Here is Bahari on working with Jon Stewart, how he made it through 118 of solitary confinement, and the need to help other journalists who find themselves in his predicament.
Do you think the film is your final say on this chapter of your life?
No, unfortunately as long as we have journalists in prison in Iran and around the world, there is a story to be told. What we have done with this film is that we have put a face and a film on thousands of journalists around the world who do not have a face, who are just statistics.
How do you react when you hear horrific stories of other journalists being held captive?
What has happened all around the world is that more people are demanding their rights as citizens of their countries and they are using new forms of information gathering and sharing information in order to gather news and share news. So as a result, a lot of institutions, a lot of organizations, a lot of terrorist organizations are becoming afraid of this new movement. What you see that ISIS is doing is just an extreme example of what many governments are doing around the world like China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, and Turkey. But the difference between what ISIS is doing and what you see in the film is that ISIS’ actions are an anomaly. No government can sustain itself through doing those things. Even ISIS has given up beheading in front of cameras because there was a huge backlash against it. What you see in the film is happening all around the world. Governments have institutionalized torture and interrogation.
Did you ever imagine that your torturer will see this film?
I’d love him to see this film. I’d love him to see it as a mirror of his actions. I’d love him to just look at himself and his boss. Look in they mirror through this film and see how horrible they are, how ridiculous they are.
There are moments in the film where you can sense a bond between the two of you. Did that happen?
Of course. From the beginning I regarded him as a human being because I thought, I’m fighting him on two different fronts. The physical front was the lost, but the psychological front I knew I could be a winner because I was more cultured person. I had traveled to several different countries, I had more friends than him and, I knew that if he had that kind of luck, he wouldn’t have chosen this job horrible job, to work in a dark interrogation room with sweaty people, beating people, insulting people—it’s just not a real job. So I thought I have to regard him as a human being in order to have control over the situation, in order to manipulate his vulnerabilities.
You were in captivity for 118 days, but this movie can only show about 50 minutes of that. How did you occupy your time for that 6 months?
What happens is that when you are put in solitary confinement, you are deprived of all of your senses. You cannot see anything except for the walls, you cannot touch anything except for the walls, you cannot smell anything because it’s nothing. The food tastes like cardboard and you cannot hear anything because the walls are so thick. So you become delusional, suicidal at times. But in order to survive it, you have to tap into your inner resources and your inner resources are your life experience, what you have gone through with your family, your colleagues, your work, your cultural experiences, the books you have read, the places you have traveled, the museums you have seen, the musicals you have listened to and watched. There were days that I was going through some of my favorite films scene by scene. I was also writing the book in my head because every day that something was happening in prison, I was thinking about scenes, I was thinking about how can I add a little bit of color to this.
At one point, you discover that Hillary Clinton was discussing your case in the media. It’s the moment you realize you will be freed. What was that like?
I was hoping there was a campaign, but I didn’t know it was at that level. The only way I could receive information was through my interrogator and he kept on saying that no one thinks about you, no one is campaigning for you and all that. I didn’t know what was going on, but having heard that my name was Mr. Hillary Clinton, I had realized that yes, the Secretary of State of the United States of America is talking about me and as someone who is not an American citizen it meant that there is such an immense campaign for me that the Secretary of the State has talked about me. So that was a moment of realization that I would get out of here.
What was your working relationship with Jon like?
We started to work way before filming, almost on a monthly basis we were exchanging emails, talking on the phone, and of course I was on the set. He’s very collaborative, he’s a genius, but I think as part of genius process he’s very open to collaboration. He is very good in terms of absorbing people’s suggestions and ideas and processing that. He has a vision for what he wants to achieve but he’s very open in terms of improvising what happens during that process.
What do you make of the complaints that a Mexican actor shouldn’t be playing an Iranian?
I think that’s irrelevant because I think the film tells a universal story so it has a universal cast. My father is played by a Turkish actor. An amazing Danish actor is playing Rosewater. And there are two amazing Iranian actresses, playing my mother and my sister. Rosewater’s boss is Egyptian, and for Gael to play me, he’s an actor. Did you have to find a Polish or German person to play Schindler? No, he’s an Irish actor playing Schindler. Ben Kinglsey is a British actor. He played Gandhi and no one complained about that.
What do you make of the United States’ policy for not negotiating the terms of release for its journalists?
I think it is a right policy. I think in the long run, paying terrorists is counterproductive. It makes the lives of everyone everywhere in the world more dangerous. Unfortunately, the United states and Britain are alone in this policy. European governments, most of them—France, Spain, Germany—they pay for their hostages’ release. Because of that, hostage taking has become a business.
What do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions Americans have about Iranian society?
I think it’s the same thing that Iranians have about Amerians, that they see everything in black and white. I think one of the beauties of this film is that it shows the nuances that you have in Iran.