An Important if Imperfect Glimpse into Misunderstand Country
Letters to the President had its North American Premiere at SXSW in Austin, TX. The film provides some useful insights into Iranian society which has been so badly misunderstood in the West for so long. And yet its incomplete explanations and poor contextualizing of these glimpses into Iranian society leave the viewer with a spotty and confusing picture of a complex and multi-layered society. The lens of the letters written by ordinary Iranians to President is a fascinating and insightful one for understanding the cult of personality developed by President Achmadinjad. The letters show how the President has established a genuine populist appeal, but the film makers also demonstrate that President's power to address much of the widespread poverty remains limited.
The film's greatest weakness is that without any narration or historical context it will leave the novice viewer either confused or misinformed about Iran. No attempt is made to explain the history of Iran (such as who the Shah was and the history of the Iranian Revolution), the institutional structure of the Iranian government (in which the President's powers are subservient to the clerical leadership) or the history and theology of Islam (such as who the Mahdi is). Also, late in the film, the focus switches rather sharply from the uneducated rural peasantry that seem to idolize the President to the more cosmopolitan population of Tehran which views his populism with disdain and cynicism.
Any film that can serve the desperately needed purpose of demythologize Iran for an American public which has been fed negative images of Iran since the Iranian Revolution is useful. Clearly, it is positive for Americans to get a more sophisticated understanding of Iran than the media has often reported and gets beyond President Achmadinejad self-destructive despicable and idiotic anti-Semitic and anti-Western diatribes. This film begins to break through some of those negative images, but due to the lack of context, its confusing narrative structure, the film is sadly incomplete and fragmentary in its presentation.
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