Austin Film Festival: Jon Stewart Closes Out Fest

Jon Stewart caps his week in Austin with Rosewater debut

Jon Stewart completed his takeover of Austin last night at the Paramount Theatre. After a week here shooting episodes of The Daily Show, in which special segments playfully ribbed our city’s weirdo-hipster-foodie ethos, the Austin Film Festival closed out this year's event with a presentation of Jon Stewart’s directorial debut Rosewater.

Jon Stewart and Maziar Bahari (photo by Jack Plunkett)

Rosewater tells the true story of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), who was imprisoned and tortured in Iran for 118 days under false espionage charges (some of which stemmed from an appearance Bahari had made on The Daily Show). The powerful film is based on Bahari’s best-selling memoir, Then They Came for Me.

Following the screening, Stewart and Bahari took the stage to discuss the film and answer a few questions from the capacity crowd. AFF’s Executive Director Barbara Morgan opened the conversation talking about the development process. “Once Maziar got out of prison, it made the development process much easier,” Stewart joked. “We went for breakfast in New York, and he was writing his memoir and asked me if I’d be interested in helping make it into a film.” After getting shot down by talented, famous writers unwilling to work for free, Stewart decided, “Fuck it, I’ll do it.” The two then collaborated on the writing process, continuously trading outlines and pages.

The conversation then turned to Bahari and the catalyst for his release. “It was a combination of things,” Bahari began. “First they made the mistake of charging me with such outlandish charges like spying for the CIA, for MI6, and for Newsweek, and the government was panicking at the time (in 2009) because they didn’t know what was going down. Two things were going on in Iran at the time: For the first time since the revolution, Iranian people were demonstrating to gain their rights as citizens of the country, not as subjects of the Supreme Being. Also, with the explosion of social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, they managed to mobilize themselves.” Bahari's wife also led a campaign supported by various media outlets that put pressure on the Iranian government and aided his release.


The guests then discussed the touches of humor found in both the book and the film. Stewart mentioned that humor offered a “higher order of reasoning” that helped Bahari reclaim his humanity in prison. Bahari added that humor was a defense mechanism that helped him cope with his time in solitary confinement. "Humor comes from observation and seeing the hypocrisy in things.” He spoke of using the idiotic accusations of his interrogator as fodder for his future book. “The stupider he got, the more material I had.” He managed to use his observations to find the vulnerabilities of his captors and exploit them. The questioning was then opened up to the audience where the topics included performance, language, and religion.

Stewart spoke of being a first-time director and having to scale the actor’s varying intensity levels to find even footing. He also mentioned a beautiful dance sequence where Bernal completely let himself go and captured a magical moment in one take.

When asked why he made the movie in English, Stewart joked, “I speak mainly English and a little bit of broken Spanish, which didn’t seem like the right choice.” He originally wanted to make the film in Farsi, but eventually decided to own his inauthenticity. “I am who I am, and I couldn’t direct or write a film in a language in which I don’t know the nuances.”

Bahari was asked if his religious beliefs kept him strong while in prison. “I have no religious beliefs whatsoever,” he replied. Stewart then interrupted, “Keep Austin Atheist!” drawing cheers from a that’s-about-right number of audience members. Bahari said that it was tapping into memories of his family and cultural experiences, including films and the music of Leonard Cohen, that he used for strength. He added, “It was also respect for other people. I even respected my torturer as a human being who was working in a bad system – a different country and he might’ve been an accountant.”

The Q&A ended with the familiar, “Are you developing your next film?” prompting Stewart to look over at Bahari and quip, “Uh, are you getting arrested again?”

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Austin Film Festival 2014, Gael Garcia Bernal, Jon Stewart, Maziar Bahari, Rosewater, Barbara Morgan

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