In June 2009 the Iranian Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari was covering the presidential election in Iran. Thousands protested – in what was dubbed the Green Revolution- what they felt were rigged elections. The protests were swiftly followed by a brutal clampdown and the rounding up of dozens of journalists, clerics and even former government officials. Many of these, including Bahari, were arrested and taken to Evin Prison. He was held in solitary confinement and tortured for 118 days.
The new film Rosewater based on Bahari’s experiences stars Gael García Bernal (Mr. Bernal sits on the WITNESS Board of Directors) and marks the directorial debut by Jon Stewart. I spoke with Mr. Bahari about his decision to speak out so soon after being released, threats to journalists and citizen journalists worldwide, and why solitary confinement is a human rights issue. Below is our conversation.
Matisse: Within a month of being released from Evin Prison, on October 26, 2009, you had published a first person account of your ordeal in Newsweek and made numerous media appearances. Why did you feel the need to come forward so quickly? Was it a part of your healing process?
Maziar: I decided to do that when I was in prison, when I was in the interrogation room, when I was in solitary confinement. Especially when I realized that there was a massive campaign for my release. I wanted to tell the world what was going on inside Iranian prisons, what happened to me. But also, I knew that I wasn’t the only person who had gone through this. I wanted to tell the world what happens to other journalists, not only in Iran, but also around the world on a daily basis.
I had covered politics in Iran, and I have family members and friends who had gone through imprisonment, torture and interrogation and I knew that if you don’t talk about it you can become traumatized, and it can really damage you. I decided that as soon as I come out I would start talking about my experience and tell the world what happened to me. As soon as I came out I started to write. I think I wrote about 50,000 words in 20 days.
The screenplay for Rosewater was based on your memoir. Originally Jon Stewart has said that he wanted to use only Iranian actors and wanted the film to be performed in Farsi and he mentioned that you talked him out of that. Why was it important to you that the film be done in English and with an international cast?
Because I wanted the film to communicate with as many people as possible. We all know that not many people watch films with subtitles, especially films with relatively heavy subjects and subtitles. This is a universal story, not something that only happens to Iranians. If we had made the film in Persian it would be very location-specific. I thought we should make it in English if possible. And then Jon decided to go with an international cast to make the film more universal.
During an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival you said that the film is not only about journalism and the risks journalists face, “It’s about family, about love, about showing Iranian people as normal not just one dimensional.” Did you work with Jon Stewart and the cast or via the screenplay to ensure these multiple dimensions were captured?
Yes, Jon and I worked closely on this script closely together and I was on the set almost every day – I had to go back to London for one week [during production]. Jon was very open to ideas and suggestions. He sent me different drafts of the script every few days. When I was on the set I had to make sure that there was no serious mistake in the film [with respect to Iran] but at the same time we wanted to tell a universal story.
As a follow up, what has been the reaction from Iranians who have seen the film?
The majority of the Iranian people, outside of Iran of course who have seen the film, have congratulated us on capturing the truth about Iran on film. I’m getting hundreds of emails, Facebook messages, Twitter messages since the film’s opening [on November 14, 2014]. So the majority of Iranians who have seen the film, love it.
The Iranian government, of course, has a different approach. They didn’t like the film even before it was made. They called it a Zionist project. They called it something that was concocted by the CIA, the FBI, and the American Navy.
In a press call for Rosewater you cautioned journalists, “If you want to go to a potentially dangerous area, you have to know that you could be potential targets. Also we need to remember that no story is worth dying for.” You also said “As information gets democratized via social media or other technology that might be invented in the future, people will be one step ahead of governments.”
At WITNESS we work with citizen journalists and another type of storyteller we have dubbed citizen witnesses- those who may not intentionally set out to document important events, but find themselves in the right place at the right moment. Do you think most citizen journalists are aware of the risks they face?
The democratization of journalism doesn’t mean that it has become safer to be a journalist. Rather, it means that many institutions – whether they are governments, corporations, organizations or political parties- are more afraid of “information”. They have a knee-jerk reaction to gathering of information, sharing information and disseminating information. They try to suppress information as much as possible by any means at their disposal.
Governments imprison, torture and interrogate journalists and shut down newspapers. Corporations intimidate journalists by suing or defaming them. And democratic governments who don’t like a piece of information be revealed put whistle blowers on trial.
I think we live in a very exciting, and at the same time a volatile period in journalism history. Professional journalism is becoming a very elitist group of people who are going to work on very specific, detailed subjects, which need real expertise. For example like Iran’s nuclear program or the trade commerce between the United States and Canada. But much of the on-the-ground reporting and local coverage will be done by citizen journalists. Citizens are becoming mediums every day, and that frightens governments and institutions. They don’t know what to do. In the next few years, or perhaps in the next few decades, there will a real struggle between these institutions and citizen journalists.
So what can people and organizations like WITNESS, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and others do to support citizen witnesses, freelancers and professional journalists?
We have to make governments and institutions more accountable. We need to raise awareness about different governments’ actions and publicize the plight of journalists in different countries- whether they are democratic, authoritarian, pro-Western countries or anti-Western countries. And we have to make specific individuals within those governments and institutions accountable for the pressure they put on journalists. Sometimes it can be through specific sanctions, sometimes it can be through naming and shaming those individuals.
Organizations that work for freedom of expression and freedom of the press, must tell people the personal narratives of individual journalists around the world. Because all of these journalists have families. What happens to us, doesn’t just happen to us, it affects our families. It affects our livelihoods. It is important for journalists not to be numbers anymore. We need to put faces on these numbers.
When you come up with statistics like 60 journalists are imprisoned in Turkey, 55 are imprisoned in Eritrea, 35 are imprisoned in Iran. These are just numbers and no one really cares about them. But if you talk about specific cases and tell the stories of these journalists, then you can really influence people. Then people can really influence their governments.
Both you and Jon Stewart mentioned solitary confinement as an issue you wanted to raise with the film. Jon called it “a bureaucratized version of torture.” He also noted that it is done by governments and institutions worldwide, including in the US. As someone who experienced it, why is it important to have a public conversation about solitary confinement and to have it acknowledged as a human rights issue?
Because solitary confinement is a form of torture. You cannot call solitary confinement anything except torture. What is the point of solitary confinement? Yes, if you are doing that in order for that person not to harm him/herself and not to harm others, that is one thing. But if you are putting someone in solitary confinement as a form punishment during the first days, months or years of internment then that is a different case. That is torture.
In solitary confinement you are deprived of all your senses, you see nothing except for the walls around you. You cannot feel anything except the walls around you. As a result your mind goes numb. And your senses go numb. You are dehumanized.
You have to treat prisoners as human beings. Yes, some prisoners have done bad things, horrible crimes, but they should not be tortured. They should go through a normal prison sentence in order to be punished and educated, in order to become better citizens. Through torturing and dehumanizing people you don’t achieve anything, but a demoralized and hypocritical society.
Did you have any other hope for a specific impact the film might have on audiences?
I just hope that the film can give context to what journalists do on a daily basis, so when people watch the news whether it is reports from Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and even in safer situations like Hong Kong, or Thailand or Brazil, in the middle of chaos and mayhem, audiences can appreciate what it takes. Hopefully the film can enable audiences to understand the context of the situation that journalists are going through.
featured image courtesy Cineplex.com