Were you concerned for your safety when you returned to Iran from London to cover the June 2009 elections for Newsweek?
I did not feel threatened when I was covering the election. I wasn’t a foreigner or a visitor to Iran. It was my country, and I never thought I would personally be in danger. Then again, anyone who works as a journalist in Iran, especially for the foreign media, is always under suspicion, always in danger. But I always thought that in the worst-case scenario they would only revoke my press card or detain me for a week, which is quite normal in Iran.
When did you first suspect you might be of interest to the Iranian government?
I traveled around by motorcycle cabbie, a popular way for people to get around, and my driver told me he saw some people watching me. But he was a young guy and was fooling around a lot, and I thought he was joking. But on June 21, nine days after the election, four men came to my mother’s house where I was staying. They came at 7:30 a.m., woke me up and took me away to prison. One of them was my interrogator whom I call Rosewater in my book, because of his smell. They ransacked the house and confiscated some of my DVDs, clothes, papers and laptop computers.
Why did Rosewater and your other interrogators think you were a spy?
They didn’t think I was a spy, but they wanted to incriminate the reformists inside the Islamic regime who want to convey a more liberal interpretation of Islam, and so they tried to do it through me. The hard-line supporters of Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, wanted to tell the people that the reformists were taking guidance from the West. Because the charges against me were fabricated, they had to fabricate evidence. But I think sometimes they really believed their own lies.
Did your interrogators know that you were the first Muslim to make a film about the Holocaust?
They did, and I suffered because of that. There was a retrospective of my work in Amsterdam in 2007 and they wanted to show different films of mine, and I insisted they include The Voyage of the St. Louis. In an interview I did at the time, I said that not all Iranians are as stupid as our president—Ahmadinejad. My words haunted me when I was in prison. Rosewater said that I was on a mission to work for the Zionists and make a Zionist film.
What were your interrogators’ attitudes toward Israel?
Many people in the Iranian regime think of Israel as this very powerful omnipresent evil empire. I realized in prison that they had a hate and envy relationship with Israel. Hatred of Israel is used as a legitimizing factor for the Iranian government. They hate Israel for ideological reasons, but at the same time they are quite envious of its military prowess. Rosewater kept saying that Israel had agents all around the world. “Don’t you think that we can do the same thing that Israelis did to that Nazi general, to our enemies around the world?” he said once, referring to Eichmann. Ideally, the Iranian government would like to carry out something similar to the Eichmann operation. They would love to have the successes that the Israeli Army and the Mossad have had over the past 60 years. They really have an exaggerated and unreal idea of Israeli power and of the Jewish people in general.
Did Rosewater ask you about your Jewish connections?
To Rosewater there were no Jewish people; he was always talking about Jewish “elements.” He wanted to know every Jewish “element” I knew. I told him that was impossible. I said that when you live in Europe or America, you don’t go around asking people what their religion is, and even if some of the people I met were Jewish, I wasn’t aware of their religious identity. But he insisted that I had to name all the Jewish “elements” I knew. I thought I had to give them something, so I gave them the names of some Jewish friends in Canada and the United Kingdom. He then said with such pride, “See, you know so many Jews!”
After your release you told Daily Show host Jon Stewart that “evil is stupid,” in reference to the kinds of questions you were asked. Could you give me an example of these questions?
We had ridiculous conversations because they wanted to fabricate evidence. They went through my Facebook friends and email list and looked for any name that sounded Jewish. I was a Facebook fan of Anton Chekhov and Rosewater thought that Chekhov was Jewish. He must have heard that names ending in “ov” were Jewish. He asked me who Chekhov was. I said he was a Russian playwright. He asked me if Chekhov was Jewish. I said, no, I didn’t think he was Jewish. I knew that many Russian intellectuals were Jewish at that time so I wasn’t sure. So he said, “We’re going to investigate this Chekhov!”
Where did Rosewater get his ideas about Israel and Jews?
His understanding of Israel and Jews is influenced by the biased information that is constantly repeated by the Iranian media. Like many in Middle Eastern dictatorships, he is susceptible to anti-Semitic ideas.
Are Iranians anti-Semitic and anti-Israel?
Iranians in general are not anti-Semitic; anti-Semitism is really a European phenomenon. To tell you the truth, Iranian people don’t have that much of an opinion about Israel because they have other things to worry about.
How are Iran’s 25,000 Jews affected by the propaganda?
I have been and continue to be in touch with many Jews in Iran, who are regarded as second-class citizens. Even though Jewish people have freedom to practice their religion, there is a limit on how much progress Jews can make in Iran. It would be unthinkable to have a Jewish government minister or president. The constitution forbids having a Jew as president. There are certain laws against them, but because the culture is not anti-Semitic, the government cannot and does not want to put a lot of pressure on the Jews.
Why didn’t you grow up to mistrust Jews?
My parents were communists, and I think communists all around the world have a fascination with Jews because of prominent Jewish communists such as Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg. I grew up hearing the word “Jewish” from my parents. I didn’t know what it was or what it meant, but when I realized that some of my heroes such as Woody Allen and Mel Brooks were Jewish, I questioned what it meant to be Jewish. I have always had this fascination with Jewish culture. That is why I made a film about Jews.
What made you want to make a film about the St. Louis—the ship carrying 937 Jewish refugees during World War II that was turned away from the U.S. and Cuba?
I learned about the Holocaust from The World at War, a British documentary series from the 1970s that was on Iranian television when I was young. Then when I went to Canada when I was 18, I studied the modern history of the Jews and I was fascinated by the history of Jews in North America. I took a course on Freud and religion and the professor talked a lot about early 20th century anti-Semitism in the U.S. and Canada. I had no idea that even up until the 1950s Jews were discriminated against in North America, so I wanted to explore that further. As an immigrant, I was interested in the history of Jewish immigration from Europe to America. So I looked for a story to combine all these elements and came across the story of the St. Louis.