Jon Stewart’s new movie, “Rosewater,” was conceived out of guilt and is being born at a potentially pivotal time for U.S.-Iran relations.
The hero of the film, which opens in U.S. theaters on Friday, is former Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari, who in the run-up to Iran’s 2009 presidential elections gave an interview to Jason Jones, mock correspondent on The Daily Show, which Stewart hosts. When the clip was shown, the caption “senior espionage correspondent” appeared under Jones’ name. This was later used as “evidence” that Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian dual national, was a spy.
Unfortunately for Bahari, the Islamic Republic of Iran has trouble taking a joke. Facing the biggest popular protests since the 1979 revolution as millions of Iranians protested the fraud-tainted re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the regime cracked down hard and scooped up Bahari among hundreds of journalists, former Iranian officials and ordinary people.
Bahari spent 118 days in Tehran’s infamous Evin prison. After he was released following an international outcry, he wrote a moving book, “Then They Came for Me,” that Stewart has now turned into his directorial debut.
At a special screening in Washington earlier this week, Stewart and Bahari took pains to describe the film as a universal story about the “cat and mouse game between authoritarian impulse and [free expression] that has gone on forever,” as Stewart put it. The movie, he insisted is not just about “the singular atrocities of one eccentric regime” but about the repression of journalists and ordinary citizens all over the world.
But Bahari conceded that he hopes the film has an impact in Iran, where the movie is sure to circulate quickly through boot-legged copies, just as the Academy Award winning “Argo” – about the escape of a handful of U.S. hostages three decades ago — did in 2013.
“My real hope is that some people in the government who are not that irrational watch this film and see their actions in the mirror,” Bahari said. “How ridiculous they are, how brutal, and understand they are not only hurting the opposition or their critics, they are undermining their own position and authority.”
As Rouhani well knows – and “Rosewater” amply shows – the forces of repression within Iran cannot keep pace with the spread of technology and the ingenuity of Iran’s large, well-educated youthful population. The more they crack down, the more irrelevant they become.
“The apparatus that these governments build to suppress information is so [much] more damaging to their survival than any piece of information could ever be,” Stewart told VOA’s Persian Service in an interview.
At the end of the film, Iranian paramilitaries are shown smashing satellite dishes on the rooftop of an apartment building in a poor neighborhood of Tehran that locals had been using to get a less biased portrayal of the 2009 protests than was available on Iranian television. Through a crack in a door, a young boy is shown filming the destruction of the dishes on his cell phone — video, he presumably would disseminate.
“Think of the expense and time these governments are putting into trying to suppress someone like Maziar who’s out there just trying to do his job,” Stewart said at the Washington screening. “And at the end, a nine-year-old boy goes, ‘[expletive] it, I’ll do it.”
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.