The Dictator, My Pen Pal
Critics complain that with Letters to the President, director Petr Lom has made a propaganda film for a dictator. Speaking in an interview with Igal Avidan, Petr Lom highlights the day-to-day absurdities of cooperating with the Iranian regime
How does a relatively unknown director get permission to be the sole foreign filmmaker to accompany the Iranian president?
Petr Lom: The Iranian Presidential Office liked the fact that I didn't want to make a critical film and that I wanted to concentrate on the exchange of letters between Ahmadinejad and various Iranian citizens. They wanted to show the Iranian president in a popular light.
It was also helpful that I am an independent filmmaker and could present respectable academic credentials. The Iranian officials even suggested a title: "Democracy in Action".
You wanted to observe the president behind the scenes and show how he thinks and how his administration arrives at decisions. You didn't succeed. Why?
Petr Lom: The Iranian authorities didn't allow me to because they were very suspicious, paranoid even. The most difficult thing was to convince them that I wasn't a spy, as was claimed by one far-right newspaper.
Of the five months I spent in Iran, I only filmed for a total of three weeks. Otherwise, I was busy filling out applications or waiting for permits. We were under constant surveillance wherever we went.
Why don't you show the restrictions on your work or the many human rights violations in Iran?
Petr Lom: I have no need to include myself in the film, but I do show how my papers were checked and a construction worker who said he had heard I had been arrested.
In most cases where I wasn't allowed to shoot, I couldn't even film the prohibition, otherwise they would have erased the material. Nor was I allowed to show the regime critic Shirin Abadi in an official film, or I would have been immediately thrown out of the country.
Nonetheless, in my free time I met with Iranian directors and human rights activists who had film bans imposed on them. I had to be very careful not to be expelled.
One man in the film talks to you while hiding behind the door. Were many Iranians afraid of the camera?
Petr Lom: Very many! In this case, I had decided to go from door to door in an apartment building in Tehran, asking people in front of the camera if they had ever written to Ahmadinejad. Many refused to answer. One called out from behind the door, "Writers here are free, as long as they don't write." Some people phoned the security service.
Did you have to present your film footage to the Iranian authorities?
Petr Lom: I only had to present my material to Vice President Ali Saidlu. I showed him 90 per cent of what I had shot; he didn't like it. He said to my interpreter that I am not a good filmmaker. And this was the de facto end to my film project. The Iranian authorities had obviously expected a more propagandistic film.
Did the vice president see the interviews with students in Tehran, where they mocked Ahmadinejad and criticised his economic policies and censorship?
Petr Lom: Only half of it.
Did the Iranians erase any scenes?
Petr Lom: Just one. A number of times I shot a building in Tehran that featured a huge wall mural of Ayatollah Khomeini. When I filmed this building and the panorama of the city from the roof, I encountered problems with the security service, because some generals lived in the building. The police subsequently erased the scene.
Why didn't you film the nuclear facilities?
Petr Lom: We went there, of course! I arrived in Iran a week before "Nuclear Day". Since April 2007, there have been annual celebrations in Iran marking the date when enough uranium was enriched to produce nuclear fuel.
We were in a provincial city and wanted to film "Nuclear Day" in the nuclear facility in Natanz, where Ahmadinejad was to hold an official speech the following day. The night before the speech, we asked an assistant in Tehran to obtain a film permit and fax it to us in Natanz.
We drove four hours to get there, got to the facility and said that we had received permission to film, but needed access to a fax machine. Of course, they refused to help us. It was actually Ahmadinejad himself who told his advisors that he couldn't understand why we were only concentrating on the exchange of letters and not on the great achievement of nuclear energy.
Ahmadinejad is standing for re-election on 13 June. How do you rate his chances?
Petr Lom: The film shows huge crowds of people in the provinces cheering him on. This could convey the false impression that he enjoys a great deal of general support. These scenes surprised some of my Iranian friends. I don't have any figures, but Ahmadinejad is very unpopular in Tehran on account of the high rate of inflation, which is now over 25 per cent.
When I was trying to get permission to film, I was asked why I wanted to make a film about the unpopular president. Yet, Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, said three months ago that Ahmadinejad will govern for another five years. That could be an indication of the election results.
© Qantara.de 2009
Petr Lom was born in Prague in 1968 and studied political science in Toronto and at Harvard. From 1998 to 2004 he lectured at various European universities. His films include Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan (2004), On a Tightrope (2007), and most recently Letters to the President (Canada/Iran 2009, 74 min.).
Translated from the German by John Bergeron