NeoHuman podcast, starring me

Willis NeoHuman

My friend Agah Bahari is interested in everything, which is one of the things that I love about him.

Not that long ago, he decided to indulge his interests by starting something he calls the NeoHuman podcast (which matches nicely with his NeoHuman blog), inviting many of the interesting people he knows to discuss pretty much anything that comes up.

Well, seems he ran out of interesting people and so he invited me to participate…and we talked about anything: biotechnology, pharma, global healthcare, designer babies, creativity, writing, screenwriting, 9/11, marketing, and the novel he and I are writing about his life.

But my favourite part is the question he asks all his guest, which is roughly:

If you met an intelligent alien life-form, what would you describe as the greatest human accomplishment and as the worst human accomplishment?

Never boring, my friend Agah.

Agah-me

(Photo stolen with love from Kelly Brienz Showker)

Rosewater too nicely scented (a review)

rose_water_movie_poster_1

I don’t know if it is that I have become numb to the harshness of world events shown on the news or that the movies I watch have inured me to violence, but I must say that I found the movie Rosewater didn’t hit me as hard as I expected.

For those of you who haven’t heard, Rosewater is Jon Stewart’s film adaptation of the book Then They Came For Me by Maziar Bahari, a journalist who was imprisoned and tortured in Iran for 4 months largely for filming the protests that arose after the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. The protests were the result of an election that was almost certainly rigged to re-elect the incumbent and Supreme Leader favourite over more moderate candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

Aside from the scenes that set up who Bahari is and how he came to be covering the Iranian election for Newsweek, leaving his pregnant wife behind, the film largely examines the relationship that develops between Bahari and his lead interrogator, a man who treats himself with a cologne of rosewater (thus the movie title) and is dealing with his own issues within the infrastructure of Evin Prison and the actual job itself.

This is where the movie excels. It rather even-handedly portrays a man who has little interest in being a martyr for a cause, as his father and sister had effectively become before him, and balances this against a delusional system that sees itself as protecting Iran’s Islamic State from the evils of outsiders and yet, at an individual level, struggles with the fact that it will inevitably lose. The interrogator is not a monster, but ultimately is a man who wants something better and yet feels incapable of achieving it. Thus, he plays the role he is assigned.

The relationship and struggles between these two men—Gael Garcia Bernal as Bahari and Kim Bodnia as the interrogator—is worth the price of admission alone, and in my opinion, Bodnia magnificently plays the more interesting of the two characters. As the movie itself alludes, Bahari was tortured of body while the interrogator was tortured of soul.

The horrified journalist (Gael Garcia Bernal)

The horrified journalist (Gael Garcia Bernal)

The tortured interrogator (Kim Bodnia)

The tortured interrogator (Kim Bodnia)

But that’s where I ultimately found the film wanting.

Although the movie gave us snippets of what a traditional interrogation looked like with harsh beatings and the resulting bruises on other prisoners, with the exception of one scene, we never truly saw how Bahari was tortured aside from solitary confinement (of which I by no means wish to underplay the significance). Thus, I never really felt like I was emotionally drawn into the peril Bahari was legitimately facing—potentially, his death. It remained all too abstract and cerebral.

To look at this issue from the other side, I am truly pleased that Stewart didn’t go down the road of over-dramatizing the violence, as this could easily have become a horror film. I just think there was room in the middle to bring me a little further into the peril.

Another complicating factor for my viewing was that I was watching this film next to my good friend and writing partner Agah Bahari, who is nephew to the man being assaulted onscreen. For his sake, I am grateful the portrayal of violence was not more heavy handed as I cannot imagine the impact such scenes would have.

Rosewater tells a very important story on many levels and despite being based on events from five years ago, remains significant today given the continued efforts at reform within Iran and its outward resistance to Western influences, as well as its horrible record of imprisoned and tortured political dissidents and journalists.

For such a dramatic story, the acting was incredibly even and bordered on inspiring, never becoming melodramatic. It had some amazingly beautiful moments of introspection mediated by the ghosts of the past, and again, the crisis of the interrogator was palpable and poignant. There is even a segment of outright laughter, incredible as that may be to believe given the subject matter.

Stewart did an amazing job with his directorial debut, providing us with a beautifully balanced presentation of completely polar events. I just wish it had stimulated my gut as much as it stimulated my mind.

I look forward to reading the book, simply to see what was altered and to learn more about Bahari’s thoughts and feelings in retrospect.

Then_They_Came_for_Me_(Bahari_book) Journalist and author Maziar Bahari

Journalist and author Maziar Bahari

See also: Agenda Journalism – Wendy Mesley v Jon Stewart

Agenda journalism – Wendy Mesley v Jon Stewart

One of these people is a "serious journalist" (Wendy Mesley; Jon Stewart)

One of these people is a “serious journalist” (Wendy Mesley; Jon Stewart)

As I practice the art of writing (e.g., novels, screenplays), I pay my bills by writing for the pharmaceutical trade publication DDNews. I consider myself more of an essayist and commentator more than a journalist, mainly because I have too much respect for journalists and the tightrope they walk balancing the need to produce a story and discover a story.

With that respect, however, comes a certain level of expectation, and in too many high-profile cases, those expectations are not being met.

The most recent case for me (and the prompt for this post) was an interview between CBC journalist and anchor Wendy Mesley and film director and host of The Daily Show Jon Stewart, who appeared on CBC’s The National on November 14.

CBC The National interview with Jon Stewart (Nov 14) (video)

The interview used as evidence Bahari worked with spies

The interview used as evidence Bahari worked with spies (Jason Jones, Maziar Bahari)

Ostensibly, the interview was meant to discuss Stewart’s new movie Rosewater  (trailer at bottom) and the events that led to the incarceration of journalist Maziar Bahari in Iran, the interrogation of whom involved video of Bahari’s discussions with a The Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones.

Ironically, the interview became an attempted interrogation of Stewart on his culpability in Bahari’s incarceration and torture, and the broader question of satire feeding the flames of fanaticism.

To his credit, while dismissing the questions as ridiculous, Stewart responded to them with logic and tried to look at the bigger picture. Mesley, however, could not be shaken from her belief that there must be guilt and culpability.

This is where I take issue.

Although I believe it is important for a journalist to know what she wants to talk about when interviewing someone, I also believe it is beholden on the journalist to let the conversation happen and see where it goes.

When I interview someone for one of my news articles, I start with a list of questions based on my research of the topic and the person/organization being interviewed. Going in, I have an agenda.

But when the interview starts, most of those questions fall by the wayside and are replaced by bigger, more important discussions that I didn’t foresee. In short, I listen to what the interviewee has to tell me and then adjust the conversation.

I completely understand that if someone is being evasive on a topic, a journalist may want to harder press a specific topic or series of questions, but in the Stewart interview, there was no evasion. He simply did not give the answers Mesley wanted, and she refused to accept them, as she is wont on many pieces throughout her years with the CBC.

Delightfully, toward the end of their conversation, Stewart called her on this, accusing her of not believing anything he said. She clearly did not do her homework on him, because she was uncomfortable with his challenge.

Sadly, this meant that the interview became about the interview and not the subjects that might have been vastly more interesting and were decidedly more important: political fanaticism, satire as a weapon, the erosion of journalism (ironically), human endurance.

An opportunity for insightful exchange was largely missed (Stewart did his best to talk about these things).

For anyone who thinks you might be interviewed at some point in your lifetime, study Stewart’s approach to this interview and any other.

For anyone who thinks you might become a journalist, study Mesley’s approach to this interview and pull a Costanza…do the opposite.

There are too many important issues to be discussed in the news to have the conversation high-jacked by a faulty agenda.

In the meantime, if Mesley wants to be an editorialist or commentator, do so. The CBC has several (e.g., Rex Murphy).

 

PS Some might argue that because I work for a trade publication, my questions are apt to be softball as the publication’s agenda is to suck up to the industry. One: I call bullshit. And two: read my stuff.

Happier times well after the events of Rosewater

Happier times well after the events of Rosewater (Jason Jones, Maziar Bahari)

See also: