June 16, 2009

Letters to the President: Returned to Sender?

As I follow the coverage of the presidential election and ensuing chaos in Iran over the last week, I'm continually reminded of the documentary Letters to the President, which I saw and briefly highlighted at MSPIFF in April. It deserved a little more discussion at that time, but I was so impressed by another Iranian film, The Song of Sparrows (which I saw about an hour later), that the immediate relevance of the documentary may have been diminished. However, I do remember that at the conclusion of Letters to the President is a simple title card informing the viewer that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is planning to run for re-election in the summer of 2009 (the film originally premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February of this year).

And now here we are, in the summer of 2009, and an imperfect film has foreshadowed a perfect political storm. (And here are some thoughts on what the storm might do to Iranian film in the future.)

Here are the broad details as I understand them for those of you who may not be keeping as close an eye on the situation: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (pictured above) took a populist approach on the way to winning the Iranian presidential election in 2005. Since that time he has received both love and loathing from Iranians and the international community ("Axis of Evil", anyone?). As in the U.S., the office of president is a four year term (though unlike the U.S., it's not the highest official position), and Ahmadinejad ran for re-election this year.

The election took place last week and what was predicted by some to be a very tight race between Ahmadinejad and his rival, Mir Hossein Moussavi, ended up being a landslide, nearly 2-to-1 in favor of Ahmadinejad. Moussavi's supporters, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, have taken to the streets in protest.

Photos: The New York Times, Vahid Salemi/Associated Press

What does all of this mean in the context of Letters to the President? Two things, from my possibly misinformed observations:

1.) As evidenced by the interviews in the film, there appears to be a silent (but now vocal) majority of Iranians who oppose Ahmadinejad, and they appear to be concentrated in the capital of Tehran, which has seen the brunt of the action this week.

2.) Despite Ahmadinejad's showy display of populism in creating an entire government department to reply to the letters that are sent to him, a number of those responses must have been lost in the mail. Or, more likely, his opponents weren't the ones sending him letters in the first place, but the ones simply waiting and strategizing to replace him in this election.

It's one of the weaknesses of Petr Lom's film that we don't get a better sense of the history of Iran or the official policies surrounding democratic freedom, but in broadly surveying the opinions of the Iranian people, Letters to the President offers fascinating food for thought. The film is currently still on a worldwide festival tour, though it doesn't look like it will be back in the U.S. anytime soon, at least not in theaters. In the meantime, check out these clips offered from the film's official website:

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