THE BLACK SHEEP INTERVIEW: JON STEWART (ROSEWATER) Out From Behind the Desk
An interview with ROSEWATER writer/director, Jon Stewart
For years, I’ve watched Jon Stewart conduct countless interviews on The Daily Show. Early one morning at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, it was my turn to ask the questions and Stewart’s turn to sit in the hot seat. Needless to say, I was terribly nervous. After watching him nail interview after interview, what could I possibly ask Stewart that wouldn’t come across as just plain dumb?
As it turns out, Stewart is nothing but a gracious guest, and I needn’t have worried at all. His demeanor and candor on a Sunday morning are exactly as they are on his nightly satirical news program. He is also just as funny, just as sharp and just as self deprecating as you would expect him to be.
Stewart was on hand to promote his first feature film, ROSEWATER, which is based on journalist, Maziar Bahari’s memoir of the same name. Bahari spent approximately five months in an Iranian prison in 2009, after he was caught illegally filming a riotous protest against the supposedly rigged Iranian elections. Once imprisoned, Bahari was shown footage of his appearance on The Daily Show as evidence that proved he was in fact a spy bent of taking down the Iranian government. It sounds insane but it really happened. So, was it guilt for the role that he played in Bahari’s incarceration that drove Stewart to write and direct his very first film?
“Guilt is obviously a powerful motivator for my people,” Stewart quips before continuing in all seriousness. “Guilt is not a sustainable emotion when carrying through a project; it’s one that would be corrosive to the project if that were the driving force.”
Stewart then elaborates on his direct connection to the story at hand. “For Maziar, they concocted this incredibly elaborate theory of Maziar as the hub of a media conspiracy to bring ordinary Iranians into contact with the CIA, MI6 and all these other things. Seeing as how that was completely untrue, they had no evidence. What they did have was a tape where a guy said he was a spy and he spoke with him in a café. They can’t just walk out there say, ‘Eh, we got nothing’. In that sense, the guilt was an utterly minor and trivial focus. The real focus was the universality of the story and the nuance and the compassion and family aspect that Maziar was able to bring to the memoir.”
Bahari’s memoir does not just detail his own imprisonment but he also talks about how his time there helped him connect with and resolve past issues with his father and sister, both of whom had also been imprisoned before by the government for their own activist activities. Stewart explains, “I had a hard enough time telling the story of his family. You’re telling the story of a democratic movement in a country, a man’s imprisonment, the story of his family’s journey throughout all that. There were a lot of tributaries that were feeding into this and that was difficult.”
As a first time filmmaker, another difficulty Stewart faced with ROSEWATER was deciphering how to communicate a very internal struggle in a relatable and visual fashion. “So much of the way that Maziar reclaims his humanity under this circumstance was to take what is uniquely human, and that is humour and absurdity, and being able to recognize that, and to be able to draw upon his cultural background and his family background because the whole idea of solitary is to deprive you of your senses,” Stewart says of Maziar’s struggles. “So you have to manufacture that to some extent. Trying to bring in all those elements, to show the fullness of experience was a lot of the challenge; and to not turn absurdity into farce; and to not diminish his experience by leaning too heavily on that. Because it is not satirical.”
Stewart has always known that there is a time for laughter and a time for all seriousness.
“It’s very easy to dismiss this as the product of a two dimensional evil and a regime that is oppressive. All regimes, democratic and otherwise, have inception points that they try to apply pressure to, to block what they feel should not be transparent.”
And back to funny again. “[ROSEWATER] is perhaps a message to regimes to try not to incarcerate journalists, as they remember shit. They are trained as far as detail and absurdity and analysis and commentary goes. It is [Bahari’s] ability to translate that experience into something relatable that makes the story so powerful.”
Bahari, who is played by Gael Garcia Bernal in ROSEWATER, was also on hand for the film’s Toronto debut and shared his experience of seeing the finished product with me. “I did not relive it. It’s a movie that is a translation of the book. As a journalist, we put a distance between ourselves and what is happening in front of us. That said, some things in the film are still uncomfortable to watch. I well up when I see certain scenes. It’s just natural to do that. I can’t say that I relive the experience though, especially as so many of my colleagues in Iran, they are living that experience that I went through. I am more worried about them than I am watching a handsome, Mexican actor play me.”
My interview with Bernal is coming soon but I will leave you with my favourite moment from my chat with Stewart. I acknowledged that, even though I work in film, that I am always discovering new documentaries on The Daily Show. After he was physically taken aback by my comment, and after thanking me for saying so, Stewart had this to say, “There are so many stories that are worthwhile to be told, that are being told in a very real way. It’s just, if you have a platform, it’s a nice a way of engaging in getting those stories out there. That’s part of my passion.”
Stewart left Toronto having thoroughly enjoyed his time at the film festival. Before leaving though, he had one simple statement to leave the city with.
“As long as you provide me with giant, crack smoking personalities, I owe you.”
ROSEWATER opens in limited theatres on November 7 and comes to select Canadian cities November 14.