Independent documentary director and producer Petr Lom was born in Czechoslovakia but spent most of his life abroad – in Canada and the U.S. His latest film, “Back to the Square” was selected as the opening film at this year’s edition of the One World International Film Festival, where he is also on the jury. Before becoming a film maker, Petr Lom was actually an academic – until one day he quit his job and never looked back. I asked him about his films, which focus on countries such as Iran and Egypt, his connection to One World and his big career change.
“It’s just personal projection because it took me a long time to get the courage to make the switch myself. When I was 35, I was a university professor, and then decided to be a filmmaker. It took a lot of internal courage to quit my job and just go for it so I try to encourage people who may be going through something similar.”
Your focus are documentaries, most of them set in the Middle East. Is there a specific reason for that?
“It started out by serendipity and circumstances. I was working as an academic in Budapest for the George Soros University and I had the chance to travel through Central Asia. So my attention focused on that region, later on China. My work in Iran had personal reasons; I have a lot of Iranian friends. And then it was just a step to Egypt, so that is the way life has evolved.”
You have a PHD in political philosophy. Does it help you in any way when you approach the topics you focus on in your film work?
“Maybe it prevents me from being stupid. No, I think studying and working on philosophical foundations of human rights issues, now I am working on the practical aspect of human rights, so there is a continuation of course.”
“You always miss things you leave behind; everything has its pluses and minuses. I miss teaching a lot and having the time to study things intensely. But on the other hand, doing the job I am doing now is lovely; to do more practical and creative things and be more engaged with the world.”
Let’s talk a bit about your personal history. You are born in Czechoslovakia but you spent large stretches of your life in the US and Canada. What is your family history?
“I was born in 1968, in May, during Prague Spring and after the Russians invaded, we left and emigrated to England. So my life has been, like most people’s life of that generation in Czechoslovakia, fundamentally marked by injustice. Not so much my life even, but the life of my parents. Emigration is difficult for everybody. So that is one more reason why I focus on issues of injustice in general in my films.”
Your latest film, Back to the Square, deals with the upheavals in Egypt. What lead you to the topic?
“I had finished a film about the Iranian regime of Ahmadinejad in 2009 and had a conversation with a producer about future subjects. He recommended I start following Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, the UN nuclear inspection agency chief in the Iraq war and who won a Nobel Peace Prize for resisting the US invasion. What he was saying about reform in Egypt, in 2010 already, predicting that Mubarak’s regime would fall and that political reform was necessary. So I was able to get access to him, and when the revolution broke out, I followed him to Egypt. Then, the focus of the film shifted towards ordinary people as it progressed, but that the original reason for the film.”
“One World is one of my favorite festivals in the world. I have been here four times now. What is special about it is that People in Need runs it, and since it is such an important organization here, there always are huge crowds, and particularly lots of young people who are very interested and engaged. And very outward looking. So there always is a tremendous energy and enthusiasm in the audiences here and the Q and As are always very long and intense. People are always really interested in what is happening and really want to know. As a film maker, that makes it a real pleasure to come here.’
Certainly, going into Egypt as an outsider, it must have been difficult to find your five protagonists. How did you go about that?
“It just takes a lot of time. Initially, it took about four to five months to figure out what the focus of the film was. We decided we should focus on basic human rights abuse, a lack of respect for human rights, and the basic fact that people are living in fear of state-sponsored cruelty. Initially, there were a lot of different stories. Ones about political change, political candidates, also following a young Muslim brother, questions of religion.
"But then I decided: No, I will focus on these stories. And they just accumulated over time, as the aftermath of the revolution progressed and horrible things would continue to be happening and happening. So the stories just accumulated. But how did I find the people? Usually, as a documentary film maker you always are looking for stories. Some are in the media, like the story of Salwa, the young woman who had been subjected to a virginity test. Or the story of the young boy, that we found from this day with the camel, when these people went into the square to try to disrupt the revolution. So some of the stories were better known and initially reported quickly in the media, but not really developed, so that you didn’t really get to know the people and their story.”
Are you concerned about the fate of your subjects if the film is show in their native country?
“We generally believe that appearing in this kind of film can protect a person, because their story becomes well-known and the publicity protects them. We told them all what we are doing and we would like to respect their courage for speaking out. But there are some things we do change, like the couple that you meet outside of the police station who have been wrongfully arrested. The story becomes actually more interesting, because the same person who abused the husband in prison is the police inspector who you meet in the previous scene. But we edited that out because it is not a good idea to make that link in the film.”
How do you view the situation in Egypt right now?
“It’s very difficult. There is a lot of disillusionment, a year after the revolution, that things haven’t really changed, that the liberal democracy they have been hoping for hasn’t really happened. Or that there is no transparency and corruption continues, as well as police and military brutality continues and that the army still seems to be holding on to power. But on the other hand, the majority of the country is aged under 30, full of young people, and their energy and revolutionary demands, that is really not going to go away.”
Your previous film, Letters to the President, was quite controversial. Some said that you did not portray the Iranian president critically and took offense to that. What is your reaction to this, and was that maybe also the reason you got access to the Iranian president – as the sole filmmaker from abroad, the fact that the film wasn’t dealing with some of the more sensitive subject matter?
“The controversy was kind of artificial. It was created by some Iranian expats living in Berlin who hadn’t seen the film and were looking for an excuse to get angry. And Ahmadinejad is such a hot-button subject in general and Iran as well, particularly in the US, where basically it is the enemy number one right now, so if you challenge this caricature of Iran as the evil empire, people get upset. They often have a vested interest of keeping this illusion of the enemy intact in their minds.
"But the way I usually I work is that I try to make complex film that aren’t dogmatic. And the way the film works, the narrative arch, is by initially showing you the propaganda machine and letting you into it, so you think at the beginning that I am presenting him the way that he wants to be presented, the way he wants you to understand him, that he is wonderful and loved by his people. But as the film progresses, that image is undermined further and further, so you understand the lying and hypocrisy of the regime. So again, you have to watch the whole film to get the full picture.”
Have you been keeping a close eye on the latest developments in Iran and what is your view on the big question of whether the situation will escalate further?
“I feel that the film I made in 2009 is still as timely as ever. I made it then; one of the reasons was that there was a lot of talk about bombing Iran, during the US elections. And that hasn’t changed; it actually is more worrisome now. So one of the reasons I made the film was to show who you’d be bombing, that ordinary Iranians are people to, which is such a primitive thing to even have to say. But as I said earlier, it’s so easy to hate an enemy that has no face, or whose stories you don’t understand, where you are unable to understand your common humanity. So that is a real worry.
"But on the other hand, the regime of Ahmadinejad is certainly much worse now than it appeared to be when I was filming the film in 2008, that really it is a regime now that is clearly governing just through brutality. I certainly worry that it is going to escalate into some kind of armed conflict before the US election in September and October."
Lastly, what are your hopes for the festival and what do you have planned for afterwards?
“I am honored to be on the jury this year, so we will be watching films all week. Fifteen or sixteen films a week, so that will be an intense week. But it is quite special to be able to do that, especially after having finished a film, when you have a clearer head, to look at other peoples’ work and try to get inspired for new projects and ideas.
“But I am also working on another film on Egypt with my partner, who was there with me all last year. So we are now editing her film, which is about five young Egyptian women who are artists, so we are following how young women’s identities are transformed by the revolution, so it is a more intimate more feminine film. We hope we can come back with it to One World next year.”