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Western Filmmaker Tackles Iranian President's Peculiar Brand Of Populism

A scene from "Letters To The President," a documentary about Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (center) by Czech-Canadian filmmaker Peter Lom.
A scene from "Letters To The President," a documentary about Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (center) by Czech-Canadian filmmaker Peter Lom.
"Letters To The President" is a documentary about Iran's controversial President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Czech-Canadian filmmaker Peter Lom was allowed to film Ahmadinejad on his travels in the Iranian provinces, where he would meet with crowds of people, many of whom had sent him letters about their daily needs. The 72-minute film was recently screened at the Berlin International Film Festival, also known as the Berlinale. In an interview with RFE/RL's Golnaz Esfandiari, Lom, the only Western journalist taken on Ahmadinejad's provincial trips, said his access to the president was limited -- but was enough to gain an inside look at his peculiar brand of populism.

RFE/RL: You were successful where Oliver Stone, who at one point tried to do a documentary about Ahmadinejad, failed. You were given permission to make a documentary about Iran’s president. How much access did you actually have to the Iranian president? And how much time did you spend with him?

Peter Lom:
Really pretty limited. You’ll see it in the film. At times I have up-close access to the president -- I’m a meter away with my camera. But one of the original ideas was to try to make a real observational film about him that would give you a better idea about how he rules and how this leadership thinks. I thought that would be really useful; we’d get a better insight into what these people are like. But I wasn’t given that access.

I was there for five months; they let me go on four of these trips with the president when he travels around the countryside. But the access I had there was no different than what the Iranian [journalists had]. I was a member of the Iranian press corps, basically. There were about 40 of us going along.

Peter Lom
RFE/RL: Weren’t you concerned that you were being used for Iranian propaganda purposes?

Lom: Of course, there are a lot of difficulties in trying to make this kind of film, and that’s certainly one of them. The government is trying to present a positive picture of their country. But on the other hand, that’s something that every politician is going to do anywhere, so I don’t even think that’s terribly particular to Iran.

Press TV in Iran had the headline that, "Ahmadinejad Goes To Berlinale." It’s hilarious, right? They haven’t even seen the film, so it doesn’t really matter -- they’re just happy that they get some kind of PR this way. It was made clear to them that I am an independent, so I’m not working for anybody and I’m not working for them, either.

RFE/RL: Did officials try to influence or pressure you to portray Ahmadinejad in a positive light?

They tacitly try to do that all the time through the access you’re given, [through] the controls you’re subject to -- of course, that’s part of it. But it didn’t really come up in a direct way. The departure of the project seemed to be a positive one to them, so they liked that from the start. The way I sold the idea was to tell them, "Look, I want to focus on the president’s populism and try to see what that means." I pitched it through this letter writing that they do -- this letter-writing center. And there was even an idea that he was going to open a telephone call center. So I put those two things in the proposal.

So it was something that they really haven’t been used to because all of the proposals usually come there and say, "Well, we want to ask him about the Holocaust and his views on Israel and his views on nuclear weapons." And they’ve heard that a million times and they say no to all those questions. But at one point, they saw some of the materials and, of course, they weren’t happy with some of it. And my translator told them straight out, "He’s not working for you. If you want him to make a propaganda film, then hire him and maybe he’ll consider that."

Young people were dissatisfied with the regime, one; and No. 2, the economic difficulties that people are having now. Some of the strongest scenes of the film show that. People are having just a hard time making ends meet.
RFE/RL: Can you give me an example of the scenes Iranian official didn’t like?

Toward the end of the film, there are young people who are just scathing about the regime -- straight into the camera with no fear, saying, "Look, this is not a free society. Censorship is worse than ever. This is not a democracy."

RFE/RL: What can you tell us about Ahmadinejad’s interaction with people during those trips? Did you get the feeling that he connects with people easily?

What you see is actually…when you see him as a politician, he’s very effective; and naturally he’s very successful as a populist. You see it in the film. He goes up and hugs people; he’s close to them. He has some bodyguards, but he’s in the middle of these crowds. And people like that.

People would tell me that the size of the crowds that he gets are bigger than [for] the [former president]. You never know if these people are telling the truth, of course. But journalists who followed different presidents along would tell me the crowds for [Ahmadinejad] are bigger in the countryside.

RFE/RL: To what degree did you think it was staged?

That’s the thing. I’m filming whatever I can. That’s the complexity of the film -- that you never know. You’ll see it at the beginning. We’re in Qom and there are these crowd scenes and these ladies are yelling, "We hate the U.S. We love our supreme leader. We love Ahmadinejad. We don’t care about the sanctions." These ladies are saying, "Our hands are full. We’ve got plenty of chicken and plenty of food to eat." And in the background, you can hear one of the people who is watching me, telling people, "Don’t tell anything to the camera."

There are these funny scenes where the same women are saying, "We’re not supposed to say anything bad; make sure we say something good. But what are we supposed to say?" So you don’t know. But, certainly, my Iranian friends, particularly the friends I have in Tehran, I’d come back from these trips and show them the material, and a lot of them would be surprised. They’d be surprised at the size of the crowds, the people who’d come to greet him. A lot of my skeptical friends would tell me that people are bused in and forced to come to these manifestations. But that’s certainly not the feeling I got -- not in the countryside.

RFE/RL: What do people want to talk to Ahmadinejad about? Do they primarily write in their letters about economic issues or are they also interested in social issues?

They’re poor people who basically want economic help. One of the strongest scenes of the film is when a man comes and wants to buy a bunch of sheep for somewhere up north. He’s written a letter to the president to get a loan so he can buy some sheep. There are a lot of letters and we had some fascinating stories from what they would show us, but we weren’t allowed to follow them. They’d show us a letter of two 16-year-olds who wrote to the president who want to get married -- a Romeo and Juliet story. Their parents won’t let them. Or some young Basiji guy who invented a rocket for the military, but he can’t get into graduate school because the adviser doesn’t like him or something. Interesting stories like that.

But did [we] get real social issues like one of the Million Signatures [eds: the One Million Signatures Campaign Against Discriminatory Laws] women who is going to write to the president asking him to improve women’s rights? Well, maybe there would be a case of somebody writing like that, but they’re not going to show me that letter.

RFE/RL: How much access did you have to the center where they answer the letters? How effective is it?

The government presents this as a very effective system, where they say, "We answer more than 76 percent of the 10 million letters that have been sent to us." Well, that’s just silly, really. That’s certainly not reflected in my anecdotal experience. A lot of it was also access. I had tremendous difficulties in access. We spent four months, pretty much every day, calling this letter-writing center and being promised all kinds of access, and waiting and waiting and waiting. And then it never happened.

RFE/RL: What did you learn about Iran while making the documentary?

A lot. There are obvious things about the dissatisfied youth in the country -- for sure, in Tehran -- and you feel that in the film. That’s extremely strong. They have to do something [about that] because that’s just not going to work. Young people were dissatisfied with the regime, one; and No. 2, the economic difficulties that people are having now. You feel that in the film. Some of the strongest scenes of the film show that. People are having just a hard time making ends meet. It’s really, really hard.

And then about the regime itself, I learned a lot. It’s a bit in the film, but it’s more, I think from my experience, just from the different officials I met -- this notion that Iran is surrounded by enemies and this notion that Iran has a long history of humiliation and it’s dignity not being recognized. This is fundamental for anybody who’s going to try to be engaging with them. And the notion how suspicious they are and full of distrust, so that a huge amount of work is going to have to be put to try to improve that, if you want to improve relations with Iran. For me, that was absolutely fascinating.

I had read about these things, but to encounter that was a totally different issue.

RFE/RL: Has Ahmadinejad seen the documentary? Did officials tell you anything about it and about his reaction to it?

I showed the vice president about 85 or 90 percent of the material when it was a rough cut, and he wasn’t pleased with some of it -- partially because it was a rough cut, and he thought I wasn’t a very good filmmaker. And naturally, because there are some critical elements in the film; it’s not just a positive portrayal of the government.

But then we sent a more polished version to the president’s media adviser, who liked a lot of it. And that was shown to the president. And there was an article, my translator sent it to me; I don’t remember the Iranian newspaper. But they said that [Ahmadinejad] had watched the DVD but that he didn’t like it because it shows Iran to be a poor country.

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