October 14, 2016
“Rosewater,” the American film very critical of Iranian prison interrogations, was screened last week in Tehran at a regime-sponsored film festival.
The purpose was to “expose the cultural, political, economic and media invasion of resistance movement enemies.”
The venue was the 13th International Resistance Film Festival. The festival’s organizers call the event “one of the most prestigious international film festivals in Iran” and say its mission is to explain “the Islamic Revolution discourse” and “resistance culture” to audiences.
But the screening of “Rose-water” was a stunner. The film was directed by Jon Stewart, the former host of Comedy Central’s comedic news program “Daily Show.” It depicts the 118-day detention of Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari by Iranian security forces following Iran’s 2009 election protests. The film is based on Bahari’s 2011 memoir, “Then They Came For Me.”
IranWire, which was founded by Bahari, reported that the festival program describes “Rosewater” as an “anti-Iranian” film, using a term Iranian state media outlets have applied to a long line of films including “300,” a comic book–inspired portrayal of the battle between Greeks and Persians at Thermopylae in 480 BCE, and Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” a thriller based, but exaggerated, on a real-life CIA scheme to evacuate American hostages hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s house in Tehran in 1979.
Shahab Esfandiary, a professor of film and theater at the University of Arts in Tehran, said in comments published on the festival website, “Screening counter-revolutionary, Islamophobic and Iranophobic films in the Resistance Film Festival helps expand knowledge and analysis and clarifies the portrayal of Iran in foreign countries.”
IranWire put Esfandiary’s descriptions of “Rosewater” to Bahari for a response.
“Definitely it’s counter-revolutionary,” Bahari said of the film. “When people look back at the 1979 Islamic Revolution they think it was a historical mistake, and I think the majority of Iranians are counter-revolutionary, so that’s okay. But it’s not Islamophobic because the film is not about all Muslims. It’s about a very specific group of people who are doing things in the name of Islam. It shows the Iranian people in a very good light, and it shows that the majority of the Iranian people want to have a more democratic, more open society.”
Esfandiary, who holds a Ph.D. in critical theory and film studies from the University of Nottingham in England, says on the festival website that Bahari was a spy.
“When I read his comments, he sounds like my interrogator,” Bahari said, referring to the man he nicknamed Rosewater, who beat and threatened him throughout his imprisonment to extract a false confession and who wore a cologne that smelled of rosewater.
“It’s sad to see that a film critic sounds like a torturer. My interrogator told me that there was no difference between a spy and a journalist. He said a journalist gathers information and sells it, and a spy does the same thing. For a very narrow-minded person who lives his life in small dark interrogation cells, that might be something natural to say, but you expect a little bit more from someone who has studied the history of cinema.”
Esfandiary, who has lectured on cultural studies at the University of Nottingham, also says Rosewater implies that any change in Iran “must be imposed on [Iranians] from the outside.”
“I don’t know how he saw that,” Bahari said. “There is nothing in the film that says change has to be imposed from outside. In the book I clearly say that I’m against any kind of intervention, and that the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan by US-led forces was a disaster and a mistake.”
One of the more peculiar charges Esfandiary makes is that
“Jordanian princes” funded the film.
“There is no truth in the suggestion,” Bahari says. “The film was produced by Scott Rubin and the financer was Odd Lot, which is owned by Gigi Pritzker. Esfandiary is lying. It’s very sad that some people in Iran lie so blatantly because they think that no one can really fact check their lies. This is one of those cases.”
Some speculated that Esfandiary wrote his comments simply as a cover to allow the film to be shown in Tehran while assuming that most of those viewing the film would see the cruelty of the prison rather than any crimes by Westerners.