Page: When fake news isn’t enough
Comedian Jon Stewart’s debut as a movie director entertains, enlightens and even inspires. But be warned, “Daily Show” fans: In case you haven’t heard, it’s not a comedy.
Not unless you get your laughs in the sarcastic way that I often do, from the endless ways with which the people who run governments give government a bad name.
Stewart’s movie “Rosewater” covers the four months of torture and solitary confinement that London-based journalist Maziar Bahari endured in 2009 while covering Iran’s presidential election for Newsweek.
Stewart and his Comedy Central show became a part of the story — and appear in the movie. That strange connection began with an interview that Bahari gave to Jason Jones, a reporter for Stewart’s self-described “fake news” show, an interview that Iranian prosecutors cited in Bahari’s arrest. Just for laughs, Jones described himself as “a spy” in the fake-news report. The regime was not amused.
Comedy to make one’s eyeballs roll comes from Bahari’s fruitless attempts to explain the cultural purpose and context of “The Daily Show.” Government strongmen obviously are looking for something to nail Bahari on, and spying charges are particularly potent in a land whose elected government was overthrown in the 1950s and the brutal Shah of Iran installed with the help of our CIA.
Even so, as Bahari, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, says to his interrogator played by Kim Bodnia, why would a CIA agent in a TV movie announce himself as a CIA agent?
Bitter humor also arises from such moments as the questioning of Bahari in his room at his mother’s house by the interrogator, who Bahari nicknames “Rosewater” for his persistently and ironically sweet fragrances. Rosewater is intent on scrounging up something criminal. Bahari’s DVD collection is suspect:
“The Sopranos?” “Porno!” the official barks.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 art house film “Teorema?” “Porno!”
A guy-oriented magazine with Megan Fox on the cover? “Porno?” asks the inquisitor. Bahari pauses. Hmm, he concedes, it could be.
As the real-life Bahari describes in his memoir, originally titled “Then They Came for Me,” his family carries a historical memory of government abuse. His late father was imprisoned by the Shah. His late sister was imprisoned by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime. Now Bahari has been imprisoned by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime in 2009.
As the movie recounts, a publicity campaign by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, of which I am a board member, and other groups led to an intervention by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and to Bahari’s later release.
It also led to a new friendship between him and Stewart. “When you get someone arrested,” as Stewart explained after the film debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in September, “you start to feel closer to them.”
Before the movie is released to theaters nationwide on Nov. 14, Stewart and Behari brought it to a screening last Thursday sponsored by CPJ and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
In an onstage discussion afterward, moderated by yours truly, Bahari revealed his own good humor to be quite intact as he described his continuing work to help other journalists who remain imprisoned.
“Can you go home again?” I asked, referring to the Iran of his ancestors.
“I can go home again,” he told me patiently with smile. “But then I won’t be able to come back.”
Stewart probably won’t be booking a flight to Tehran, either. His movie was filmed mostly in Jordan, except for exterior shots done in Iran. He and the movie’s co-producer, billionaire Gigi Pritzker, have been accused by Iran’s state TV and other pro-government media as being instruments of a Zionist-CIA, etc., etc., conspiracy. The usual smears.
More work remains. The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian was arrested in Iran in July and is still held without charges.
Iran became the world’s leading jailer of journalists in 2009, according to the CPJ’s tallies, and remains in the top three. Earlier that year American freelance journalist Roxana Saberi was convicted of espionage but released after another publicity campaign.
Yet Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani, denied during his recent trip to the United Nations in New York that his country jails any journalists. He’s either lying or somebody’s keeping the truth from him, too.
Clarence Page writes for the Chicago Tribune.