Six years ago, if you had told Petr Lom that he’d be presenting a documentary at the Jakarta International Film Festival (JiFFest), he wouldn’t have believed you.
“Are you kidding? I had no idea what you could do with films, with documentaries,” says the Czech-Canadian who has a PhD in political philosophy from Harvard University.
Many might consider an Ivy League doctorate and a lecturing position at the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest an enviable career, but Lom, now 41, found it “very narrow”, “too lonely” and “self-centered”.
Through academic visits to Central Asia, he encountered a more fulfilling occupation, one he entirely taught himself, and to which he could apply his thesis-editing skills: freelance filmmaker.
“Basically, I had the idea for a film and I just went and made it. Bought a camera, all that. I spent several months in Kyrgyzstan, researching the subjects, finding contacts… I was very scared, I almost didn’t do it,” he says, referring to what became Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, which won the jury award at the 2005 United Nations Festival and was screened at festivals in the US, Asia and the Middle East.
His first film met with protest in Kyrgyzstan because of concerns about the filming of real kidnappings. This combination of acclaim and controversy has characterized his subsequent films, which have been internationally screened, garnering prestigious awards like the Grand Prix at Chicago International Documentary Festival.
At JiFFest, Lom introduced his latest film Letters to the President, which follows Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on trips to the countryside, focusing on the letters poor Iranians write to him, requesting everything from sheep to prayer gowns – and the bureaucratic processing of these millions of letters.
Via this device, Lom’s documentary depicts a side of Iran not usually visible to outsiders, exposing deep class divisions, and allowing the audience to decide for themselves whether the populist president is as bad as he’s usually represented in the West.
Another two of his films were screened at JiFFest: You Cannot Hide From Allah, about a Pakistani taxi driver who won US$54 million in the US lottery and returned to his hometown to become mayor, and On a Tightrope, featuring Uygur orphans learning to tightrope. Lom also taught a masterclass, sharing tips and techniques of working in conflict situations.
Lom prefers making films about ordinary people, a preference that is clear even in Letters to the President, in which the most memorable scene is two women bemoaning the price of strawberries and the standout character is a charismatic propaganda-poster painter who is patiently waiting for a response to his letter.
His films are observational verite, with no narration, minimal title cards and no set ups, with the only interventions being questions from himself and his translator. His subjects relax and open up remarkably in front of his camera, which is all the more astonishing considering that the 1.83-meters-tall blond filmmaker is likely prone to attracting attention in the countries he has filmed in.
“Sometimes spending a lot of time with your subjects helps you be invisible, because it makes you accepted by them, and other times, it’s just the energy you exude,” he says.
Letters to the President is notable for the rare access Lom had to Ahmadinejad. He succeeded where others failed, including Oliver Stone, which he attributes to his proposal to focus on the letter-writing, a request the authorities likely found a refreshing antidote to applications related to Iran’s nuclear technology – as well as his invaluable network of contacts.
“The smart approach to working in any authoritarian country is to work officially. Don’t try to sneak around, it’s a bad idea, it won’t work. So you have to try and find a subject for which you can get official permission, which is going to have to be something relatively positive.”
The promised access wasn’t completely delivered – his planned interviews with Ahmadinejad never happened due to the latter constantly rescheduling – and his five months in Iran were mostly spent “fighting for permissions”, rather than filming.
This thwarted his original intention, which was “to make a film that’s respectful, that shows the point of view of the so-called enemy”.
“I didn’t have proper access… so how could I make that movie if the only narrative line I had was to set it up as a propaganda film and then undermine it as the film goes along?”
The Iranian response to the footage was mixed, and he doubts he’ll be able to re-enter the country under the current government.
“The vice president… he’s in the film and he doesn’t like how he comes across… Ahmadinejad didn’t like it because he said it makes Iran look like a poor country,” he says, adding that was inevitable as he was only allowed to follow the president to the poorest areas of the country.
“In a way they were happy that the film got a lot of international publicity. They put in the newspapers, ‘Ahmadinejad goes to Berlinale’.”
Lom also planned to focus more on ordinary Iranians, such as the painter, whom he thought could be “the main character”. However, as the film took a more critical shape, he realized a character-driven film could be dangerous for those involved.
“Now it’s a vignette film, you meet people here or there, but it’s not really about anyone in particular… so nobody’s really affiliated.”
Lom describes Ahmadinejad as “chaotic”, but otherwise reserves his views.
“I only filmed what you see so my opinion is the same as yours. He seems like a very religious person, he’s a very good politician, he seems like he genuinely cares about poor people. Is that just an act because he’s a politician? I don’t know.”
He is currently looking for his next project, as his plan to film Uyghurs in Palau who were released from Guantanamo, fell through two weeks ago. The former prisoners were worried about angering either the US, China or Palau.
“I told them, I won’t release the film until you find a new home somewhere… they still didn’t want to be in the movie.”
Although he’s usually “depressed for a month” by such setbacks, he accepts them as part of the work.
“The bigger the film, the bigger the risk. You never know things are going to work out.”
Despite the international recognition his films have received, Lom says it remains challenging to realize new projects and secure funding.
“In the broadcast world a lot of it about trust; most films don’t get made, so your reputation helps a lot, when you’re looking for work. But is it that much easier? No, you’re always starting from zero; you always have to convince people.”
Nonetheless, Lom intends to remain a freelancer, as it allows him “to make creative documentaries, the way I want to make them”.
Having so successfully made a dramatic switch from one profession to another, one wonders if there’s anything else Lom might want to tackle?
“Nothing. I am naturally fitted to what I do. I’ve found my place in the world,” he says.
“When I was an academic, I was always asking, well what am I going to do with myself? Now I just ask, what film am I going to make next? And how am I going to be able to make that film?”
Visit http://www.letterstothepresidentmovie.com for more information.