Letters to the President

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/17/09 02:26:27

"Postmarked Iran"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2009 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL: "Letters to the President" is somewhat difficult to review as a film because it does its job so well. It is trying to give the audience a snapshot of the relationship Iran has with its populist president, and it does so with so little pretense that I'm initially more interested in the facts than the filmmaking.

Iran's current president is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he's the highest ranking elected official in the country, after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He was born in a village of 2,000, though his father moved to Tehran where Ahmadinejad was a child. He would later become a university professor and the mayor of Tehran before being elected President in 2005. He is extremely popular with the people, both for his religious faith, his commitment to nuclear power, and his unusual accessibility. His proximity to people in public appearances would give the USA's Secret Service nightmares, and he encourages the people to write him with their problems.

The latter is the film's stated topic, and it's not hard to be impressed by the scale of the undertaking. Nine to ten million Iranians have written since his election, and an official tells us that 76% have received a response. Ahmadinejad can't do all that personally, of course, so we get looks at the bureaucracy put into place to handle it. The response is also not always positive, as a thoroughly frustrating interview between petitioner and official demonstrates.

As intriguing as this idea is - and it is intriguing; how many other nations have such a sample of what is important to its residents on an individual level? - it is the things tangential to the people writing to the President that drew me in the most. Being relatively unfamiliar with the tenets of Shi'a Muslims, I'd never heard of the Mahdi, a central figure in that branch of Islam whose arrival at the mosque in Janbaran will bring about justice, the end of days, or both (it varies depending on who one asks). We see Ahmadinejad cast his vote in the mid-term elections, and subtitles remind us that one in four candidates were disqualified for not being considered loyal enough to the Islamic Revolution. And we see how caught up the crowd can get, with Ahmadiejad able to get them chanting slogans ("atomic power is our right!") and deflecting attention from the troubles at home to external enemies. We see how peer pressure is used to clamp down on anything that might be construed as disloyalty.

Director Petr Lom interfaces with the crowds in an interesting way. There's no way for people not to be aware of the camera, so many of his crowd shots will have people not just yelling slogans, but not to say anything to the foreigner. Other times, though, he will manage to get a small group comfortable enough with his presence that they either open up or treat the camera like furniture; a pair of mothers coming to meet one of Ahmadinejad's representatives are initially very guarded, but eventually are speaking freely (or as freely as one can in Iran, where Orwellian phrases like "in this country, you are free until you talk; when you talk you are not free" are the rule), breaking down in tears over how one has to save money for three weeks in order to buy strawberries for her son. Revisited subjects express casual surprise that the filmmakers haven't been thrown in jail. Lom also seems to speak primarily with women, with the older women expressing fierce loyalty while the younger women complain about the morality police.

In the end, I don't know that I learned very much about the titular letters or president, but I did feel like I had met the Iranian people. Like people everywhere, they deserve better than they're getting.

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