By Phil Hall | May 6, 2010

Petr Lom’s documentary offers a view of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as seen by his countrymen.  For those who only know him as that weird little man who talks tough about using nuclear weapons, this film shows Ahmadinejad as being something far worse: he’s just another cheap politician.

Ahmadinejad, according to the film, is seen as a savior to many people – to the point that his office is flooded with millions of letters, e-mails and telephone calls from Iranians seeking his help on a wide variety of matters.  Indeed, Iran appears to be a country in need of great help – rampant inflation has made the cost of living nearly impossible for most people, and many areas of Iran are still without electricity and running water.

Ahmadinejad doesn’t answer these calls for help directly – a small army of bureaucrats and call center operators field the requests and then either hand them off to an appropriate government agency or just caution the agitated inquirers to exercise more patience. And in the rare occasions when he is openly addressed by the public on matters of local concern, Ahmadinejad deftly changes the subject by evoking nationalist slogans and trotting out the inevitable “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” jingoism.

While the practice of segregating requests by gender is unique to Iran (the Islamic theocracy cannot tolerate men discussing inquiries from women, and vice versa), the practice of building up Ahmadinejad as a populist hero who talks a great game but doesn’t actually deliver anything can easily find a home in any nation’s political environment. Even worse, the guarded caution by many Iranians in openly discussing the country’s woes and the government’s callous incompetence provide ample evidence of the dangers of living under a regime where free speech is not a welcome commodity.

If anything, “Letters to the President” reveals Ahmadinejad to be little more than a Persian political hack, and it shows Iran to be one of the less desirable places of residence in today’s Middle East. It is depressing, to be certain, but it is also quite an eyeful.

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