Bearing Witness, #IranElection (part 2): Phil Bennett & Negar Mottahedeh on the Lessons of “Rosewater”
Scholars discuss the power and limits of bearing witness — as traditional or citizen journalists — and the government’s use of social media as a tool of control and repression.
by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary on APRIL 10, 2015: *updated on April 13, with new information on the Rezaian case
Last month Duke University literature professor Negar Mottahedeh and journalist and public policy professor Phil Bennett hosted a screening of “Rosewater” at Duke University — a feature film about the real-life imprisonment of Canadian-Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari following his video coverage of the 2009 Iran elections.
In the public Q & A portion, Bennett and Mottahedeh discussed the potent themes of the film, including the power and limits of bearing witness — as traditional or citizen journalists — and the government’s use of social media as a tool of control and repression.
Released in November 2014, “Rosewater” is based on Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival. The screenwriting & directorial debut of The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, it stars Mexican actor Gael García Bernal.
Bahari was a consultant on the film, which follows his trip to Tehran to cover the 2009 Iranian elections for Newsweek and interview Mir-Hossein Moussavi, who was the prime challenger to controversial incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
THE PLOT: “As Moussavi’s supporters rose up to protest Ahmadinejad’s victory declaration hours before the polls closed on election day, Bahari endured great personal risk by submitting camera footage of the unfolding street riots to the BBC. Bahari was soon arrested by Revolutionary Guard police, led by a man identifying himself only as “Rosewater,” who proceeded to torture and interrogate the journalist over the next 118 days (at Evin prison). In October 2009, with Bahari’s wife leading an international campaign from London to have her husband freed, and Western media outlets including “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” continuing to keep the story alive, Iranian authorities released Bahari on $300,000 bail and the promise he would act as a spy for the government.”
Freeing Jason Rezaian ?
Last month’s screening (on March 17) was especially timely given rent coverage another high-profile journalist imprisoned in Evin prison — the same place where Bahari had been held. American-Iranian journalist Jason Rezaian, who had been working as The Washington Post’s Tehran bureau chief when he was put in prison, had just commemorated his 39th birthday (two days earlier) and 236th day there.
Arrested in the summer of 2014 with his wife Yeganeh Salehi (Salehi was released in October), Rezaian was not charged with a crime. He’s in solitary confinement and in poor health, and was only recently allowed to see a lawyer.
In addition to U.S. State Department efforts and appeals from family and friends, Muhammad Ali has also publicly asked for his release. Iran’s foreign minister has even expressed hope that Rezaian will be cleared, but the journalist remains in prison.
This statement from Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post was released just last week (April 2): “For more than eight months, virtually the entire span of these high-level U.S.-Iranian talks, our Tehran correspondent Jason Rezaian has been in an Iranian prison, without any public accounting of the charges against him. Iran should have ended this cruel and unconscionable charade months ago, and with the talks now adjourned, there can be no excuse for further delay. It is long past time for Iran’s leaders to demonstrate fairness and a commitment to abide by Iran’s own rules, which could only result in Jason’s immediate release. Their handling of the case to date has instead amounted only to state-sponsored injustice.”
The only thing that the government has said about the reason he’s in prison, said Bennett, is that Rezaian was “acting outside the sphere of journalism.” (On April 13, Tehran’s chief justice announced that Rezaian would be tried soon for espionage).
Bennett — who began the “Rosewater” Q & A session with an appeal for Rezaian’s release — is director of Duke’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy. He was the managing editor of The Washington Post between 2005-2009, spent six years as a foreign editor at The Post, and has also worked as a foreign correspondent. Most recently he was managing editor of FRONTLINE (2011-2013).
Reflecting back on his time at The Post, he noted the difficulties the paper faced in setting up a bureau in Iran. “Journalism about Iran from the outside is generally poor, in large part because of access,” said Bennett, explaining that this was resolved by freelancers like Jason Rezaian and others.
After asking the audience for a show of hands if anyone had heard of the Rezaian case, Bennett remarked on how few people — despite all the recent media attention on Iran — had even heard of Rezaian. He called attention to the petition on Change.org for Rezaian’s release.
Observed Bennett: “One of the mysteries of this case for people who don’t know Jason Rezaian and who read his stuff, (is that) one of his missions in life was to break down stereotypes about Iranians for American audiences… So there is a question and mystery about why he was singled out given that he was a sort of guide to a different image and a different understanding of the way the Iranian people live and most American audiences see.”
Freedom of Expression Under Assault: 21St Century Censorship
21st century government censorship of the media has gone beyond just imprisoning journalists, shutting down newspapers, radio, and TV stations, and restricting journalist access.
“Governments around the world are using stealthy strategies to manipulate media,” wrote Bennett and Moises Naim in the cover story for Columbia Journalism Review’s Jan./Feb. issue. The article looked at cases in Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Hungry, Kenya, Russia, China, Venezuela, and the Bahari case in Iran.
They wrote that “governments are having as much success as the Internet in disrupting independent media and determining the information that reaches society. Moreover, in many poor countries or in those with autocratic regimes, government actions are more important than the Internet in defining how information is produced and consumed, and by whom.”
Bennett explained, at the screening, that one of the things that happened to Bahari (the subject of the Rosewater film) in prison was that government agents cultivated and mined his social media use.
“One of the first things they asked him was for the passwords to his Twitter and Facebook accounts. And then they went through those address books and they rounded up people that way. And in the movie that’s depicted with them looking through his written address book,” said Bennet. “The Iranian government was really pioneering in their use of social media to fight social media. They got into those networks. They created false Twitter accounts, false Facebook pages, and enticed people to like them and then found out who those people were.”
Both Mottahedeh and Bennett talked about how the protests online and in the streets of Tehran in some ways prefigured the Arab Spring uprisings, people power, citizen journalism, and netizens.
“I felt like it was a breakthrough moment in 2009 (in Iran), as it was in 2011 in Cairo and elsewhere,” said Bennett, while lamenting the “impressiveness” of how quickly those spaces closed down.
In today’s Iran, Facebook, Twitter, and Google are all blocked. In Cairo, journalists are still being imprisoned, and many wonder if the Egyptian uprising — witnessed in real time in the media and online — was ultimately a success or failure.
Mottahedeh, who teaches a course on social media and social movements and is publishing a book in June — “#iranelection: Hashtag Solidarity and the Transformation of Online Life” — described for the audience the sense of community in the early days of the Iran election protests as citizens uploaded and shared what was going on, but she also acknowledged the limits of the power of the public sphere. (READ Her introduction/backgrounder to the real-life events depicted in “Rosewater.”)
“I think something about the anonymity of social media gives you a sense of autonomy, the ability to speak freely about your ideas,” she said. “At least in the case of Iran election … (there ) was a very real sense of solidarity and connectedness that we are together in this, that we are many. But ultimately when this sense moves into the public sphere, into the real world, one sees that one has been seen and that space of free speech was not as liberated or liberatory as one once thought.”
Humanity and Universality
Both scholars praised Jon Stewart and his team for their ability, in the film, to not overwhelm viewers with violence or let the plot devolve into an Us vs. Them narrative.
“The most beautiful part for me of this film was the way that the film created a compassion not only for Bahari but also for his interrogator,” said Mottahedeh. “That they were both recognized as human and trapped in very similar situation. It was very clear that Bahari, even in his imprisonment, even when he was being tortured, recognized the humanity of his interrogator and that he was being forced to do what he was doing in the context of the prison system.”
“Rosewater” was filmed in Amman, Jordan, not in Iran where it was set.
“It’s an act of imagination and empathy, and a lot of thought and feeling from a distance, to create what we’ve just seen,” said Bennett. “Hats off to Jon Stewart.”
Mottahedeh noted that Jon Stewart, in his measured depiction of violence, made it possible for viewers to “absorb that there was violence and torture.”
“We didn’t shut down, we could take it in and recognize the horror of it, the human horror of it, not the spectacular horror that we oftentimes see in movies,” she said. “I think that when we are confronted with images, representations of violence all the time, I think we’re immune to it. And I think in this case he wanted us to feel it. And the way that a film makes you feel it is by holding back and then giving you the blow, and then pulling away so that it actually sinks in.”
I asked both of them: “Are we meant to see Iran as the enemy?”
“This film clearly reflects an effort to reach out in a human way to other people … not overdo the context of it,” said Bennett. “There’s some expository stuff here, but this isn’t Argo. This is a different kind of approach. When Hillary (Clinton) comes on the screen (in a newsclip showing her appealing for Bahari’s release) it’s like ‘what is she doing there?’. It’s not a movie about America vs. Iran.”
One of Mottahedeh’s takeaways was that the story was universal. The themes weren’t necessarily only particular to Iran.
“I think what’s really interesting about the actor who plays Bahari is that it was a story that was recognizable to him as a Latin American,” she said.
In the movie it’s made clear that both Bahari’s sister and father were imprisoned in Iran and died there. But Mottahedeh pointed out that both types of states in Iran — an Islamist regime as well as a secular regime — “imprisoned and killed the family of Maziar Bahari.” She said that the movie “allows us to see that it’s neither a secular state nor a theocracy that is to blame for a particular repression or violence.”
A Call to Action?
“What do you think we should take away from this film?” an audience member asked the scholars, “aside from the fact that we’re looking at a heinous autocratic regime that does not want the light of day shown upon what it does? Is there a call to action here?”
No call to action, per se, the scholars indicated, but a raising of awareness?
Bennett’s response: “I think this is a clear demonstration of a tribute to freedom of expression, and freedom of expression is under assault in many places as we see in the roll at the end of the film. I think one of the paradoxes and contradictions of the information age is that information is under attack in many places, and in many different ways, and in ways it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate… In an understated way it’s (the film) a sort of a love song to the idea of journalism and people connection … and the ways that that threatens states and autocratic states in particular. And why do they crack down? Because it’s incredibly threatening to them.”
In that way, Bennett said, the movie was “inspirational” — this challenge to the government by the media on behalf of oppressed people.
“We often sort of shrug off attacks on the press,” said Bennett, who called to attention the fact that these attacks do “materially degrade the quality of civil societies where they occur, and our own sense of freedom more broadly.”
Mottahedeh said she thought that the movie was not so much a call to action, but a “representation of the current media ecology where we’re witnessing a transformation of journalism and the uses of social media.”
“The lines are starting to blur, and we really don’t know what the future of that will be.”
Bennett and Mottahedeh also responded to questions on journalistic risk-taking (naiveté or just part of trade craft?), and were asked to speculate on the role, if any, that Bahari’s or Rezaian’s Iranian roots may have played in their imprisonment and treatment (their answers to that were inconclusive).
“The whole office (of journalism) has become so much more precarious,” said Bennett, reflecting on the increased risks journalists take today. “I don’t need to conjur an image of James Foley for you or other cases which would have been incomprehensible — even to me working in foreign news for a long time, 15 years ago — that are now part of the daily bread of foreign correspondents. And not just in the Middle East but in many many places where journalists are targets.”
In the final scene of the movie, a small child is depicted holding a cell phone and filming Iranian police who are raiding an apartment complex — destroying and dismantling “illegal” satellite dishes from which Bahari’s friends there had gotten so much of their news.
Reflecting on this powerful moment, Bennett said: “For every kid with a little camera there’s some invisible camera that’s filming the kid. And that’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but I think that those counter forces are present.”
The “Rosewater” public screening and Q & A was sponsored by the Program in the Arts of the Moving Image (AMI), the Duke Islamic Studies Center (DISC), the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy, the Duke Human Rights Center at Franklin Humanities Institute (DHRC@FHI), and ISLAMiCommentary. A complete recording of the introduction and Q & A will be posted next week.
Here is Jon Stewart and the trailer:
Here is a recording of the Q & A Session following “Rosewater” screening.
Here is a recording of Prof. Mottahedeh’s introduction to “Rosewater” — speaking about the 2009 Iran election.
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