Letters to the President is a documentary about the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, known around the world for his verbal attacks on America and Israel. In this film, however, the focus is very much on Ahmadinejad’s relationship with the people of his own country, hundreds of thousands of whom send the populist politician beseeching letters. The film’s Prague-born Canadian director Petr Lom got remarkably close to the Iranian president, though his uncritical approach has been denounced by some.
When I spoke to Lom at the One World festival, I first asked him whether sending ‘letters to the president’ was a long-standing tradition in Iran.
“Apparently writing letters to the president is a very old Iranian tradition. People would tell me it was not just writing to the president but any political leader. Usually in a village – you’d write to the head chieftain about your requests or whatever. But someone told me recently that the Ottoman sultans used to do that as well. So I don’t think it’s particular to Iran.”
Would you know how many letters a year Ahmadinejad gets?
“They said 10 million since he’s come to power. They said that all the other previous presidents had got 10 million in total – he’s got as much as everybody else.”
You had remarkable access to President Ahmadinejad. How did you swing that?
“How did I get the access? A couple of reasons. First of all the connections – everything works through personal networks in Iran, so you better know somebody. My fixer was personal friends for 10 years with the president’s media advisor, so that was a direct ‘in’.
“And then we were lucky, they said they liked the project and had had 350 requests to make a film about Ahmadinejad, the famous one was from Oliver Stone. But most of them were to make a straight-ahead biopic about him, or most people would write, we’re interested about why he wants to destroy Israel and why he denies the Holocaust and why he wants to build a bomb. So I avoided all that stuff…
“I read in the Guardian that he wanted to open a presidential call centre. You see it in the film, there’s a little bit of it, but that didn’t really go anywhere. Then I read about the letters and the media advisor told me, he meets with ordinary people every week. So I put that into the proposal and they liked it. They called the film ‘Democracy in Action’.”
Did the Iranian authorities follow your work closely? Did they interfere with your work?
“They would interfere a little bit. It was more that you had a lot of surveillance. That was obvious. It was made explicit to you that you were under surveillance. Not to me, of course, to my translator – they’re too polite to do that.
“But it was very clear. There were lots of so-called security checks all the time, whatever that means. You had to be very careful. And Iran is a security state, so when you were filming on the street it’d be normal that you’d have different security apparatuses, because there are different kinds – there’s the police, there’s the Basiji, the religious paramilitaries who have their own religious security force.
“So different people would come up to check your permits all the time and ask what you were doing. And if they didn’t like what you were doing ask you very politely to come with them and have a two- or three-hour interview and look at your material together, and that sort of thing.
“People were always polite though, I must say, very, very polite, and usually would be quite friendly afterwards and try to be quite helpful. So it’s not really the stereotypical black-and-white impression you’d have of Iran from afar.
“I must say, for example, that the president’s security guards were the nicest people in the world, the kindest, most helpful, wonderful people. I can’t say enough nice things about then.”
Did the Iranian authorities order you to change your film in any way?
“Not really. They probably would have liked to. I didn’t show them the final version of the film, mainly just for practical reasons. The film only got completed in the middle of January, so there wasn’t really time to send it to them even. And not much point then, because I’m outside the country and the film’s sort of done.
“But their main concern…you have to understand that Iranians are very proud people. There’s also a real sense of awareness of their colonial history and a real sensitivity to that, and a real perception that we’ve been humiliated constantly and oppressed and treated unjustly by the western world and the United States.
“That extends to their experience about journalists, who they believe only come there and want to show negative things. They’re very sensitive to that.
“Also my project, I started saying look, I come here with an open mind and an open heart and I’d like to make a film that would create greater understanding for your regime. That was my intention. They bought that from the beginning, and that certainly was my intention.
“Unfortunately, when there’s lack of access you have to film what you can. And because it’s a documentary it shows the truth and a lot of the truth is not something that any politician is not going to like very much, particularly in a closed society.”
I know some people are critical of the film – they say that you weren’t critical enough. And I know somebody has called you Ahmadinejad’s Leni Reifenstahl, which is a pretty strong charge. What do you say to that?
“Well, that’s an Israeli journalist, so…I did an interview with him in Berlin and he was very friendly and then you read the interview and it’s like, I didn’t say half of those things, how did this come out? [laughs]
“But as a filmmaker, the simple answer is go make your own movie! [laughs] And also there’s a lot of naivety…some of the questions, you know at one of the Q & As at the first screenings in Berlin somebody asked me, why didn’t you go and interview homosexuals in Iran? Why didn’t you go interview political prisoners who are in jail? [laughs]
“You know, my response was that I wanted to make a film that’s not longer than a short film. If you’re working in a closed society you have to accept certain limitations just by crossing the threshold, just by entering the country – that goes without saying. These kind of naïve questions, why didn’t you film people in jail?...how am I going to do that?”
One thing we don’t see in the film is any nuclear facilities. Did you want to film them? Did you try to film them?
“Yeah, of course we did. In fact, President Ahmadinejad apparently himself suggested…he asked, why are we focusing on this, he said, small issue of letters, and why don’t we focus on some of Iran’s great achievements? We said, wonderful, we’d be delighted to go film there. But the permissions just never came through.”
“I think he’s regarded in the way you see in the film as a rather ordinary politician and a very successful populist. He’s very charismatic with ordinary people, that way. And that also leads to those who are really against Iran…people don’t like to see that because they’d prefer to have these stereotypes that he’s a devil, when he’s not.”
We generally see him wearing the same jacket, it’s slightly too big and beige. Has he got many such jackets? Does he wear the same one all the time, do you know?
“I don’t know. That’s part of the populist shtick…What I do know from his inner circle, a lot of the advisors including the vice president, they would tell us that his simplicity really is a genuine sincere one. They would tell us stories about how his wife brings his lunch to work every day…is that just a story that you tell the foreigners? I’m not sure, but…”
You didn’t see the wardrobe with 20 jackets all the same?
“You know, he’s a rumpled guy who doesn’t particularly care about his appearance. But that’s kind of part of the whole…whole revolutionary class. Since the Islamic revolution you’re not supposed to care about how you dress, you’re supposed to be an ascetic, right? He actually seems to take that seriously and he rails also against corruption in Iran, about the corrupt mullahs and clerics who don’t.”