In Iran, a campaign ad is high art

Rafsanjani tries to burnish his image with carefully crafted TV ads before the presidential runoff vote today.

The camera follows the candidate's wife, enveloped in a wispy white chador, as she steps quietly into the garden with a plate of chilled watermelon.

The view shifts, looking partly from behind a tree trunk - as if peeking into a private life. As he sits at a table and pauses from his reading, presidential hopeful Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's face lights up with grateful appreciation as the watermelon arrives; as he tries to speak, it is clearly an emotional moment. The camera shakes, as if it's home video.

But this footage is anything but random - and the shake is deliberate, to enhance the viewer's sense that he is getting an insider's look. The heartwarming scene is from a 28-minute film that has become - along with a handful of other campaign propaganda films here - the highest art on Iran's campaign trail.

Iranians are voting today in a runoff, unprecedented since the 1979 birth of the Islamic Republic. And molding their decision will be campaign videos as polished and well-targeted as those that grace the US political scene.

"I'm trying to reveal another, more human facet of [Rafsanjani's] character," says Kamal Tabrizi, one of Iran's most popular film directors, who agreed to shoot the spot for the two-time former president. "People see a political man, and I wanted them to see a human face through his family and private life."

The audience is guided on a remarkable journey meant to portray a contemplative family man - as well as a powerbroker at work.

One moment Rafsanjani's family is speaking highly of their hero, or a grandson is sitting on the candidate's knee while he surfs the Internet. The next moment shows Rafsanjani taking on legions of foreign and local press who hang upon his every word; or a scene from a newspaper printing plant churning out stories about the newsmaker.

One intriguing scene shows the contender sitting without his turban, expressionless as he watches a soccer match. Iran celebrated its qualification for next year's World Cup competition with street parties a few weeks ago.

"I think that with people like Hashemi Rafsanjani, their reactions are not very open," says Mr. Tabrizi, explaining why he portrayed presidential calm while sitting in front of the TV. "Physically they are there, but their thoughts are elsewhere, on more important matters."

Even the choice of Tabrizi to produce the campaign footage guaranteed a sympathetic audience in Iran, and was the talk of the campaign propaganda circuit.

The director's latest film, out last year, was "The Lizard," a wildly popular comedy with a deeper spiritual message. It tells the story of a thief who dressed up like a cleric to escape prison, but then could not escape the role - and became a respected mullah before being found out.

The film won prizes at the Fajr Film Festival in Tehran, then was permitted to be shown in public - until lines at theaters every night caused hard-liners to shut it down as too irreverent.

Hoping to capitalize from that independent reputation, hard-line presidential candidates Ali Larijani and Mohamad-Baqr Qalibaf both asked Tabrizi to film their campaign videos. Tabrizi refused, but agreed to do Rafsanjani's video even though the candidate decided to run at the last minute.

"I thought he is a good politician in the current situation," says Tabrizi, eating an ice cream cone on the set of a TV serial he is now filming in south Tehran. "We need a person who can overcome all these guys who are fighting each other.

Feedback about the film has been positive, says Tabrizi, though he is uncertain about the impact. The film ends with a young girl - meant to be a granddaughter, but in fact an actress - walking with innocent white shoes to the door of Rafsanjani's den at home.

She cracks open the door and peeks in, hoping for some attention. The candidate smiles and takes the little girl for a walk down an avenue lined with trees on either side - an Iranian idyll.

"We can't say it doesn't have any effect on people," says Tabrizi, as he hops back up and onto the set of his current project. "Even if people don't agree, this is direct emotional communication, without anyone in the middle."

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