In April 2006, Iranian authorities arrested the Iranian-Canadian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo as he prepared to board a flight to Brussels. They accused him of plotting a “velvet revolution” against Iran’s ruling system, imprisoned him for four months, and forced him to make a televised confession. An international campaign secured his release. This October, Jahanbegloo published his prison memoir, Time Will Say Nothing. His account bears clear similarities with Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari’s 2011 prison memoir Then They Came for Me, on which Jon Stewart has based his directorial debut, Rosewater. In September, Jahanbegloo attended the red carpet screening of Rosewater at the Toronto International Film Festival in the company of Bahari, Stewart, and the film’s lead actor Gael Garcia Bernal.
Ramin Jahanbegloo spoke to IranWire by phone from Toronto.
In "Time Will Say Nothing," you make several references to film history. Which genre of cinema does Rosewater belong to?
It’s somewhere in between documentary and fiction, but unlike many Hollywood films, it tries to be an image-forming medium for spectators to know more about Iran, and about the work of journalists. I place Rosewater in the same category as benchmark films like The Front Page, where you see the work of journalists and how they have to deal with social problems, or All the President’s Men, which is about the Watergate scandal. It’s a very moving, powerful, compelling movie.
Which parts of Rosewater resonated most with your own experience of imprisonment in Iran in 2006?
There were a lot of similarities, especially in the depiction of solitary confinement. I lived the same experience: the chilling story of being a prisoner in Evin Prison in Tehran, and being entangled in a legal system that is labyrinthine and surrealistic, like The Trial by Franz Kafka, where you don’t know why you’re in prison or what you’re accused of. In Rosewater, we get to see the fear in prisoners like Maziar, or me, who have to confront a fictional conspiracy. This is the Kafkaesque side of it.
This bad feeling of being pushed to confess to what you have not done, which gives you the feeling of having lost your dignity and your honesty and the principle of truth, was one point that was very important for me. Another was the positive tone. We see it when Maziar, played by Bernal, talks to his pregnant wife on the phone and becomes hopeful and starts dancing to the music of Leonard Cohen. Hope is always there, the hope of being free and of seeing your loved ones. These aspects are common to both our experiences.
Did you ever perceive your own prison experience in cinematic terms?
Oh yes, very much. I wrote my book in a very cinematic way. My prison memoirs are full of flashbacks. It’s kind of like in a movie like Casablanca, or other classical movies where characters are thinking about what happened to them in the past.
I had flashbacks very clearly, since when you spend time in solitary, memories come back and haunt you. They come one after the other. These became the chapters I wrote about my childhood, my parents, my studies in France, and my love affairs with different women in France and Iran. You cannot control memories. I see that with Maziar’s book and in Rosewater.
What emotions did you experience when you watched the film?
I had a lot of emotions. I was practically in tears. I was once again living my own experiences in Evin Prison. When I was watching the scenes of Bernal in solitary and in the interrogation room, I thought that I was in his place, as if I was playing in the movie. It was a very deep, profound, touching emotional experience.
How well does the film capture the physical and procedural aspect of being a prisoner in Evin?
The film is very close to the experience that prisoners have, and Jon Stewart got a lot of help from Maziar, who spent a lot of time next to Stewart and the actors, trying to explain his experiences in Evin.
We have to talk about the surrealistic aspects. Like Maziar, I also tried to find some sense of humanity during my interrogations, and tried to engage in dialogue with the interrogators, or with my jailors when they brought me food.
The second aspect we see very clearly in the movie is how we try to get past all this conspiracy, this trap in which you are caught up, and which is destroying you psychologically and physically. The weakness of the prisoner is shown, that in his interrogation, he cannot do anything. But every prisoner finds a way to get out of this surrealistic situation, and to find a lived experience where one can defend oneself against these violations.
What does a former prisoner gain by presenting a narrative of his imprisonment to an audience?
It’s very important. It’s not very easy to deal with your memories. It needs a lot of courage to do that. By writing your memoirs, you try to get over your suffering. Writing a book is a kind of redemption.
Did the style of interrogation change between 2006, when you were imprisoned, and 2009 when Maziar was imprisoned after the elections?
In both cases we had the same kind of interrogation. Of course, in 2009, there was more fear in the hearts and minds of interrogators because they found themselves confronted by a social movement. So people like Maziar and others were actually portrayed, directly, as the real causes of this social movement. They were put under a lot of pressure and were subjected to physical violence.
My case was actually the preparation of this “conspiracy,” because I was accused of preparing a velvet revolution. I could not understand how I could do that, especially because I, like Maziar, was not coming from a political background. But we need to distinguish between people like Maziar and myself who were well known outside Iran—because interrogators were very careful in not injuring or destroying them—and young men and women who have been treated very badly—some of them have died—during the same time as Maziar’s imprisonment.
To what extent is the film’s eponymous character, the interrogator Rosewater, typical of the Iranian government’s representatives in Evin?
He is not only a typical character of Evin Prison. He could have been an interrogator or torturer in a Chilean or Argentinian prison in the 1970s, or somewhere in Eastern Europe, or in South Africa, in 1970s or early 1980s. The way he is portrayed — with the exception of rosewater being a typically Iranian perfume—his authoritarian style is a typical way of violating human rights, of assaulting individual rights, around the world.
How will the film affect western viewers’ understanding of Iran?
I hope that spectators — especially in North America — will not judge it in dualistic terms of good and bad, what I call the Bruce Willis or Die Hard syndrome, where there are good guys and bad guys, and the good guys should destroy the bad guys.
One thing that you get out of Rosewater is that there are no good guys and bad guys. Of course there are people who commit injustice and those who fight for justice, and of course there is a difference between the two, but we should not have an essentialist view of human beings, because we are all caught in the same cycle of violence.
This is what I like in Rosewater. The difference between Rosewater and a movie like Argo is that Argo does not condemn hatred and violence. It shows a superpower that tries to defeat another power by going and trying to free some prisoners and take them out of the country. But I think in the mind of Jon Stewart and Maziar Bahari and probably Gael Garcia Bernal, there is a confrontation with the problem of violence itself. The film tries to take the spectator out of the cycle of hatred and violence. It doesn’t want to push them to make a judgment against Iran or Iranians, or a judgment in favor of new violence.
How do you think interrogators in Evin Prison would interpret it if they saw it?
I for one hope that they will watch it, just as I wish they would read my and Maziar’s books. Not just with a distorted or ideological eye, but as a cry of the soul of prisoners who are not trying to be vengeful, and are not trying to destroy them, but are trying to make them understand that what they did was unjust, and that there has to be an end to these violations of human rights. The important message of the movie is that we all need to condemn violence and go beyond it so as not to commit new forms of violence, and to eventually replace forms of resentment with nonviolence and compassion, and with a sense of justice and truth, which is the real work of art and journalism.
Rosewater opens in movie theaters across the United States and Canada on November 14.