Iran, 2008. As President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's motorcade creeps through the teeming streets of Qom Shrine, thousands of people jam hand-written letters into the hands of his handlers. Hearing their President deliver a speech is a thrill, but more promising to these men and women is the hope that their letters - expressing pleas for loans, medical attention, housing and jobs - will be answered. Since his 2005 election on a populist, "man of the people" platform, Ahmadinejad has encouraged Iranians to send him such letters; according to a staff member, he has received about 10 million of them, and has been able to respond to nearly 76 percent. In one letter, a 16-year-old boy says his family has no money and goes to bed hungry every night. According to the staff member, the boy will be helped. As other letters are read, the worker says that "In Islam, charity is a necessity."
Accompanied by Ayatollah Khamenei, President Ahmadinejad arrives at the polls during the 2008 Mid-Term Parliamentary Elections to cast his ballot. When asked by the press what he thinks about the US and EU declaring the elections neither free nor fair, he says, "The world's opinion is not so important. What matters is the people's decision." Many of the Iranians present echo that they do not trust the foreign press. When asked what they like about Ahmadinejad, they say he is brave and acts directly, he is interested in the people, he gives good advice, and he has advanced nuclear power. Most say he has succeeded in foreign policy, though he should focus more on domestic issues, specifically inflation.
In Aradam, a town of 20,000 that is Ahmadinejad's birthplace, a man mentions that, "17 million people voted for him. It was a big deal." Though Ahmadinejad's father owned a store here, business was poor and they had to move to Tehran. The proud people of Aradam talk about how he grew up to be a university professor, then Mayor of Tehran, and finally President. One supporter says that some people complain about inflation and the price of rice, but they would still vote for the President again. He says no one answered their letters before Ahamadinejad, but now there is a whole team of people dedicated to the task.
At the Presidential Letter Processing Center in Tehran, letters are sorted by sex of the author so that the men staffers do not read letters written by women. The readers are Basiji students, a religious paramilitary group chosen because it is believed they can be trusted with secrets. There's also a call center where workers summarize requests in a database.
Part of the President's agenda is to hold face-to-face meetings with average Iranians. A number of people wait in a lobby to meet him, including two veiled women, one of whom recounts how she saved for three weeks to buy strawberries for her daughter. The meetings are cancelled before either can meet Ahamadinejad. At the Letter Receiving Office, a man tries to get a loan to buy sheep after being turned down by his bank and local government. The agent treats him poorly and denies his request, telling him to return to the bank. Out of desperation, this man threatens to sell his own daughter.
At a large rally in the countryside where the President is speaking, people complain about not having their letters answered. Many say that plans for improvement are only started the week before Ahmadinejad is scheduled for a visit, and that many projects are halted before completion. Workers are told not to air their grievances to the President.
Ahmadinejad visits a small village, where people chant "Death to America! Death to Israel! Nuclear Energy is our right!" Talking to an elderly man, the President blesses the souls of the man's martyred children, and promises to bring water to the village. He notices the man has cut his finger, and offers to give him a band-aid. He adds that in America there are 40 million unemployed and homeless, with no institutions to help. He also talks of Iraq and Israel, saying that all of the Palestinians and Iraqis are looking to Iran.
In Tehran, young men and women aren't as quick to embrace Ahmadinejad, arguing that only those in the countryside write the President, because they "are limited and can't see." Believing that writing letters can only solve individual problems, one man cites a Chinese proverb: "If you give a man a fish, he will eat for one day; but if you teach him to fish, he will eat for a lifetime." Other grievances concern Ahmadinjad's lack of response to women's issues, the rules he poses about wearing jewelry on both men and women, and censorship.
A man who has helped paint a mural of a holy man on a building wall waits patiently for a response to his letter. He thinks it is better to improve the regime rather than replace it. The film closes at another large rally, where Ahmadinejad holds his hands up to the adoring crowd. He will be running for reelection in June 2009.
About the Filmmaker: Petr Lom is a former academic with a Ph.D. in political philosophy from Harvard University. His previous documentary films include You Cannot Hide from Allah (2007); On a Tightrope (2007); Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan (2004) and The President's Playground (2004).
Credits: Directed, Produced and Edited by Petr Lom; Executive Producer: Behrooz Hashemian; Co-Producers: ARTE France and Point du Jour International; Consulting Editors: Anna Contomitros and Jean Tsien.