The School of Foreign Service and Carnegie Endowment for Peace brought Jon Stewart, his directorial debut “Rosewater” and its subject, journalist Maziar Bahari, to Gaston Hall on Sunday afternoon.
“Rosewater,” based on Bahari’s memoir “Then They Came for Me,” tells the story of his internment in Iran’s Evin Prison in the chaotic aftermath of the country’s 2009 elections. Bahari, a Tehran native living in London, was on assignment for Newsweek magazine when he was arrested and kept in solitary confinement for 118 days, subjected to interrogation and torture meted out by an official with a fondness for rosewater cologne.
“I chose this story because I thought it was beautiful and compelling and universal,” Stewart said at the event.
The film opens Nov. 14, but the Masters of Science in the School of Foreign Service program and Carnegie Endowment were able to mount a pre-screening for the university community, in partnership with IranWire and Open Road. Stewart and Bahari were in town for a screening and talk at the Newseum Sunday evening.
“Organizations often come to us as a part of a program, and we are happy to offer tickets to them as a part of the partnership that makes it possible to present interesting programs for our Georgetown community,” Georgetown Communications Officer Maggie Moore said.
Students began lining up at 4 a.m., although doors did not open until 12 p.m. According to Moore, over half the seats in Gaston Hall were allocated to students, who were funneled to the balcony, while the first level was reserved for guests of the MSFS program and Carnegie Endowment.
The screening commenced shortly after 1 p.m. and concluded to thunderous applause. Stewart and Bahari’s ascent to the stage was met with a standing ovation. The pair spoke with Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, Georgetown adjunct and Bahari’s longtime friend.
“I encourage all of you, if you’re thinking of getting into film, to get your own television show first, and then see if you can get someone important arrested and then move from there,” the “Daily Show” host said, after greeting the audience with a reference to the ever-popular comparison of Healy Hall and Hogwarts.
“And actually, for the sequel, I’m going to North Korea,” Bahari quipped.
Sadjadpour led a discussion replete with levity that touched upon the titular character’s obsession with Western culture, sex and Jews, social media’s literal revolutionary effect and human and civil rights abuse.
“Many regimes have enemies and in authoritarian regimes and regimes all over the world, enemies are very convenient ways to not be accountable for your behavior or the conditions of your people,” Stewart said. “You may say Jews and sex are convenient obsessions for people in these authoritarian regimes in the way that we use Muslims sometimes in this country as a convenient way to avoid dealing with certain things. Each society has its own ways of playing to its worst base elements and controlling the governance of the people through these types of obsessions.”
Bahari spoke on his post-release dilemma and attempting to publicize the Iranian regime’s abuses while preventing his story from being used as fodder for the anti-Iranian hawk campaign.
“When we started to talk to Jon about the story, this was one of the priorities — to humanize. And also to show a different side of Iran that people don’t see,” Bahari said. “The first part of the film shows the new generation of Iranians, people who are open-minded — and these are not rich kids from north Iran. These are poor kids who are very religious and from traditional families but because of the Internet and satellite television they are getting to experience the rest of the world.”
Although Bahari was portrayed by Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, two of Iran’s most acclaimed actresses, Golshifteh Farahani and Shohreh Aghdashloo, feature prominently in the film.
“Originally, when Maziar and I were talking about it, we were very much the purists. It must be done in Farsi. We must only use Iranians who had been in prison,” Stewart said. “Then Maziar asked, ‘Do you actually want people to see it?’”
The director said that the film is meant to expand even beyond the gripping narrative, and spotlight the worldwide abuse and intimidation of journalists.
“In some respects, I had to own my own inauthenticity as a director. My ear is not attuned to the nuances. If you are Iranian, this will, almost by definition, be simplistic or reductive of your culture,” Stewart said. “But, for the purposes of this and to give it a universal aspect so that you can’t just dismiss it as the singular atrocities of one regime, these are the types of things that are being committed to journalists and against citizens all around the world, and in the United States, we too use the levers of power to suppress information and keep people in solitary confinement.”
A question-and-answer session followed the conversation. Most queried about policy or the production process.
A student of Iranian descent asked Bahari if he would renounce his Iranian identity after his experience.
“Oh, no. Iran is enriched with tradition, it’s my country, I was born there and I have family there and friends there and I love parts of the culture … but it’s a very interesting country,” he said. “I’m Iranian, whether I like it or not. I want to be an Iranian.”
Stewart was asked if he feared that the film’s release could derail nuclear talks.
“Will this be something that they can use of convenience? I don’t know. In the same way they’d tell me, ‘You killed Crossfire.’ No I didn’t. That was a s—-y show,” Stewart said, to raucous cheers. “You cannot control what idiots will weaponize and to censor yourself for their ignorance would be a mistake.”