Saturday, April 18, 2009

[SIFF09] Letters to the President (Asian Premiere)

Listen To My Problems!

While this may have been sanctioned by the Iranian government and the man himself, it's surprisingly quite balanced without a need to censor any sensitive remarks that may have made them look bad, though of course like what was said by people in the beginning that since the camera is trained on them, they had better have good things to say, so I believe some form of self-censorship was practiced, but still a candid remark or two would also have gone through despite comments that could generally be already very guarded. After all, there are issues which are close to the heart and may have strong emotional attachment to them.

There's no one on one interview with Iranian President Ahmadinejad throughout the film, as the camera shadows his movement in clips that are from a third person perspective. We see during his rounds throughout the land that his motorcade or entourage gets mobbed each time, and because of his letter policy, have everyone wanting to get his attention, to submit a letter, either personally handing it to him, or given to his aides, or just thrown into his vehicle! It's like a rock star making an appearance in a downtown city, where thousands profess their love or listen to his every word like the gospel being disseminated. It's clear that this man, elected in 2005, is popular in his country, but feared by the West because of his controversial sabre-rattling which his supporters echo (also in the film on nuclear energy, and making a bomb while at it).

Watching this film you might be inclined to evaluate if this is a President for his people, or is it just a facade? The film doesn't answer it, but provides both sides of the argument for your evaluation. It first starts with everything quite positive in terms of the people's vocal support, before peeling away the layers to suggest a number of cracks within the system, especially highlighting some broad division within society, between the rural and the urban folks, providing some keen insights to what could be happening behind relatively closed doors with vast differences in their basic concerns. For example, the female urbanites are quite vocal in their unhappiness with the morality police, and the urban folks, with what was presented in this documentary, being less guarded with their opinions even in front of the camera.

On the surface, the letter writing system Ahmadinejad put in place might seem an excellent idea, given of course replies come from him personally to address the concerns of his people. In theory that is, because once you start to receive millions of letters demanding your personal attention to issues, logistics would mean employing a team to tackle the reading, replying, and execution of the reply. The result's quite impressive, because of the millions of letters received, the reply rate is about 3 in 4, somewhat akin to writing to Santa Claus I suppose, with only those who are nice being entertained before goods get dispensed.

You can see the immense logistics set up for this, with letter processing centres and call centres being staffed with paramilitary personnel who are groomed as future leaders of the state. I thought this was a shrewd move given that you're allowing them to gain first hand experience in a wide myriad of grassroots issues. A reply to the letter writer is often treated with gratitude, but a deeper issue lies in the fact that a high response rate doesn't necessarily translate to a modest success rate, because issues are normally basic bread and butter kind, and with the international sanctions in place further limiting scarce resources, it's back to dealing with red tape and bureaucracy.

It's also curious to note that more women than men subscribe to the scheme, where they fervently believe that he will be able to solve their problems, mostly stemming from feeling the impact of sanctions, doing away with meat and high inflation on food prices, which the men dismiss as just tough luck because of the worldwide shortage. There was some significant time devoted to this aspect, with the focus of two women in conversation while waiting to meet the President during his meet-the-people session, which didn't materialize.

As a documentary, Letters to the President presents basic issues faced by the general population, so those looking for a documentary on the Iranian leader would find this a little lacking in that aspect. But nonetheless it managed to offer a peek into the psyche of very different groups of people, and the day to day problems and concerns each face.

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