As protests rage through the streets of Tehran, one thing is clear: Iran's recent presidential election has torn the social fabric of the Islamic Republic, which has otherwise hung like an opaque curtain to the West for the past three decades.
In a timely documentary, "Letters to the President", Petr Lom attempts to rustle that curtain for a peak at a complicated country where few foreigners have been allowed. The film aired recently on HBO and is scheduled for screenings and broadcasts all over the world–including on al-Jazeera, the Arab world’s most popular television channel.
To capture the sheer scale of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s populist influence, Lom tethers his film to the government’s open call for letters. On scraps of paper signed with a first name and mobile number, Iran's mostly poor citizens plead for help. They ask the president to expedite a loan or change the price of strawberries. An Iranian official interviewed in the film says the government receives some 10m letters and answers 76%. Footage of the letter-processing centre in Tehran reveals it to look like any formidably bureaucratic place, except that men and women are separated.
Lom gets extraordinary access to Ahmadinejad during his day-trips to the country, revealing his charisma and humanity. In one scene the president adjusts his hair backstage before facing millions of roaring admirers. In another a man passes his son through a thick street procession in order to receive a presidential kiss.
The film approaches cinema verite in a country where chasing film permits can seem kafkaesque. Lom lets his subjects speak for themselves. In his director's statement, Lom describes the challenge of gaining access to the halls of Iranian power at a time when only a handful of foreign journalists are in the country:
When I look back at the five months I spent in Iran, most of my film was shot in about two or three weeks of actual shooting – precious little for a documentary filmmaker. (And this is why the film cannot be a character?driven narrative, but rather has to rely largely on observational vignettes and occasional interviews) The rest of my time was spent in endless phone calls, writing letters, and waiting outside of officials’ offices to get the access I had been promised. For the longest time during my stay in Iran, I thought that I would not get enough material to make a film, that I was wasting my time and should simply quit and leave Iran. I did not. This film is the result of my persistence.
Some surprisingly candid interviews are interspersed throughout. A young woman in make-up complains about the strict Islamic dress code. A man expresses embarrassment at the country’s foreign policy. A rabble in a poor, dusty town greets Ahmadinejad with demands for water.
Lom varies images of a messianic Ahmadinejad among his followers with footage of disillusioned Iranians who roll their eyes at their poor, faithful countrymen. The film tugs at the frayed edges of Iran's class divide.
Disappointingly, "Letters to the President" never really addresses the president’s relationship to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, who is thought to be the country's real authority. Following the election, it has become clear that Iran’s future now hinges on how Mr Khamenei handles the opposition to Ahmadinejad’s victory.
Regardless of what the electoral investigation yields, the prospect of change in Iran has made shed meaningful light on a mysterious and often demonised country.
"Letters to the President", a film by Petr Lom