Talking politics with Mexico’s Gael Garcia Bernal

‘Without journalists, there is no democracy,’ says star of Jon Stewart’s Rosewater.
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November 21, 2014

Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, Rosewater, was released this month, prompting a wave of interviews with its cast, crew and real-life inspiration Maziar Bahari, the Iranian-Canadian journalist who was imprisoned in Iran in 2009. But it also incited wider discussions on the film’s themes — press freedom, torture, protest and political commentary. OpenCanada published a piece on the release of Rosewater, in which its star Gael Garcia Bernal said unlike another politically charged film on Iran, Argo, this one is “not about showing how f—ing cool the West is.”

Unfailingly passionate about social justice, Garcia Bernal got fired up on a number of issues — including his own run-in with the police in Los Angeles and his love of documentaries — during an interview at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Here are the highlights.

On solitary confinement and torture

What happened to [Maziar] was institutionalized torture that resembles torture that exists all over the world, meaning that solitary confinement is something that is used everywhere to deconstruct that person, to deny it from existing. That in itself is a way of torture. It happens even in the most sophisticated democracies.

Guantanamo is a great example, or even jails in California. I think they recently were demonstrating against solitary confinement because it is being used normally for any situation now. This is what the story is about really.

On press freedom

What Maziar points out is how these institutions or governments organize this massive infrastructure to suppress freedom of speech and how one person — be it a journalist or a little kid with a camera — can bring that infrastructure to its knees and how they are so scared about it.

The persecution of journalists all over the world is massive, it’s everywhere. I mean I come from Mexico which after Iraq is the second most dangerous country for journalists. Without journalists there is no democracy, there can’t be democracy. I think in the United States as well there are journalists that are being persecuted and kind of shut down completely, quieted down. We have examples from all over the world where this is happening.

On Ferguson and police brutality

What [Jon Stewart] did on Ferguson recently — it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen, important things I’ve seen on a subject that is also very, I mean, come on — the brutality that exists [by] police in the United States is massive. We have all felt it. I have been stopped driving a car in Los Angeles and felt the f—ing brutality that these guys treat you like you are a criminal and with my son in the back of the car. Just because I turned, I did a traffic mistake or something and I’m already like almost pointed a gun at and threatened that I will go to jail if I do that again. I’m like ‘What? Where are we? What is this?’ It’s a police state. That’s supposed to be security.

On filming and fasting in Jordan

What drew me [to Rosewater] is that Jon is a person who is always looking for that common good in a way. As a director he knows how to handle a group of people working on a project. He is a very fun guy, very loving, very intelligent, really easy-going. I mean he created this atmosphere where he would make us feel comfortable in it, even though we were shooting in the middle of Ramadan in Jordan.

We had to find a way around respecting Ramadan and the fasting because most of the people in the crew were fasting. We would join them in the fasting as well sometimes. I mean I would do it just for the sake of saying ‘Why not? Let’s just try it.’

Jon was able to put this together and pull it off in five weeks, which is very little. He discovered the semiotics of cinema, he discovered the way of working on a set and building a movie. Also he surrounded himself, and I’m talking about the rest of the group as well, with really good people and people that have a lot of experience.

On the power of documentaries

It is no secret that I like documentaries. I came out of the closet a long time ago about it. I have this documentary film festival that has been running for 10 years. It’s called Ambulante-dot-com-dot-m-x (laughs). Why I like documentaries is because documentaries explain things, to put it in short terms. By explaining things I mean that they unveil the ridiculousness of the situations. Yeah, just where the problem lies in a way and how it immediately deconstructs and destroys completely the unique discourse. You know? It destroys a clear, one-sided point of view because documentaries bring complexities to it.

On mixing political commentary and comedy

I’m a big admirer of Jon’s work and what he does. I mean he is not the only one of course. Like in Mexico a person that is key to the democratic opening is a clown that gives the news in the morning called Brozo. It’s a clown and he is the one with most veracity and he has been doing that for many years. He is just so intelligent and amazing to listen to. But he dresses up as a clown and he gives the news. What a great way of explaining the world.