Secret Ballot, a new film from Iran, opens with a lyrical flourish: silhouetted against an orange dawn, a military plane parachutes a box to the ground below. Slightly surreal and effortlessly beautiful, the prologue actually belies the movie that follows. Absurdist curlicues notwithstanding, this sober picaresque imparts its message with the stylistic rigor and understated naturalism that have become identified with Iranian cinema.
Perhaps the formal economy is necessary for the outsized subject. An essay on democracy and enfranchisement, Secret Ballot is certainly not short on ambition. As serious as the film is in posing questions—and answers—regarding Iran’s national project, it never lapses into parochialism. On the contrary, Secret Ballot aspires to universality, a quality suggested not least by its nameless protagonists.
Director Babak Payami’s second feature has the makings of a traditional screwball comedy. Set on the remote island of Kish, which also served as the setting for last year’s The Day I Became a Woman, Secret Ballot takes place on Iran’s election day. A government agent, a woman ferried in from “the city,” arrives at a lonely soldiers’ outpost tasked with supervising the voting on the island. Because she is a woman, the soldier initially refuses to help—only to reluctantly accept when told that he has no choice but to follow his superior’s orders. Armed with the heaven-sent ballot box, the bickering duo drive around the desert in a beat-up jeep, seeking out votes in the island’s every nook. The plot transpires in road-movie fashion, as each episode yields a new lesson or payoff. One old man wants to vote for god; another won’t vote with a soldier in his presence. Schematic as the scenario is, Payami never fails to engage his audience with his seriousness of purpose.
Less hilarious than equable, Secret Ballot is a polemic in only the most general sense. There is no mention of the specific political context, likely because such commentary would’ve drawn the reproach—at the very least—of government censors. Nonetheless, the movie’s progressive humanism comes through clearly. Payami’s heroine is the latest in a long line of feminist avatars from recent Iranian films—the bicycling wives in The Day I Became a Woman, the resilient women of The Circle. Though the movie doesn’t portend an imminent change in Iranian conventions, it does allow a quiet revolution by the end, as the obstinate soldier finally accepts the agent as an equal—if not better.
If its feminism is unmistakable, the movie’s stance on democracy is more complex. Presented as idealistic and assertive, the agent spends the day fielding questions that she can’t answer—and that the movie leaves unanswered as well. Do elections really bring about change? Is it fair that one can only vote for the sanctioned candidates? Should voters who know nothing about the candidates still be allowed, much less persuaded, to vote? While Secret Ballot ultimately accepts democracy’s merits, it does so with a critical consciousness.
Payami may have been born in Iran, but he prefers to think of himself—and his movie—as unencumbered by national or ethnic boundaries. Brought up in Afghanistan and educated in Canada, Payami nonetheless can’t help but appropriate the techniques and style of contemporary Iranian directors. Not to mention content: Payami credits Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf for the story idea.
Although the movie’s rhetorical directness threatens to lurch into didacticism, Payami’s technique goes some way into mitigating the narrative’s declarative tendencies. Payami employs long takes and minimal camera movement, encouraging audience participation by not meddling with our responses. Casting non-professional actors, he convincingly creates an unadorned world where the concepts of democracy and voting can be seen with fresh eyes. In a way, the audience discovers the voting process anew with the characters. While Payami’s minimalist approach suffuses the movie with an invigorating democratic spirit, it eventually succumbs to the law of diminishing returns. Not exactly suffering from a surfeit of new ideas, this seemingly uneventful movie has its share of longueurs.
Payami’s realist mode does not preclude metaphor. Is it reading too much to note that the ballot box, not to mention the soldier’s orders to escort the woman, come from above? For all her talk about abiding by the law, the agent comes across finally as a willful pragmatist. When she falls behind schedule and begins to diverge from the plan, she is forced to improvise—tossing aside maps, running red lights—left with only a few core principles as her signposts. Are her travails supposed to embody the Iranian struggle for democracy? At its best, Secret Ballot is richly suggestive.
Democracy may be a work-in-progress in Iran, but its film culture is world class. Secret Ballot suffers from not being a masterpiece, used as we are to the recent succession of gems from Iranian directors. Unexceptional though it is, Secret Ballot is worthwhile, if only for the unintended resonance that American viewers will find in it. As we watch the agent look literally under every rock to find voters, her actions seem more than an ardent expression of civic vigor—they feel like an inadvertent rebuke to a complacent American electorate.