Democratic gulf - "Secret Ballot" Review

By David Lipfert

One end of Kish Island lures middle-class Iranians to buy tax-free microwaves and CD players; the other barely shows signs of the 20th century - that's where director Babak Payami sets "Secret Ballot," his modern fable of elections and voters.

The glistening sea and sandy beach seem ripe for an ancient myth to come to life or an Angelopoulos allegory to begin. Instead this is a modern tale of an election commission envoy determined to corral every last adult to cast a ballot. Even on this Persian Gulf island where oil tankers and smugglers might outnumber fishermen eking out a living, it's election day. In preparation, a ballot box has been parachuted onto Kish at dawn soon followed by the voting supervisor from Iranian mainland headquarters.

And what better defender of the right to vote than a determined young woman ever ready to cajole the locals into choosing from among approved candidates? This is serious business. For her the country's future is at stake, and she's not about to let poor maps or uncooperative locals stand in the way of advancement. A young soldier escorts her about in a cream-colored jeep, but sometimes he interferes more than helps. Early on, rifle in hand, he chases a potential voter across the barren terrain only to be soundly reprimanded by his charge.

Director Babak Payami doesn't supply names for the young woman or the soldier. That's beside the point. The story is about their encounter but it's also about how democratic practices can take hold where monarchs have held absolute sway for millennia. The task is daunting.

The unlikely couple encounter a settlement where all the men circle a grave but then break without showing the least interest in the visitors or the white ballot box. A lone woman is too spooked to hang around. The results aren't much better at a village run by an unseen matriarch, but at least there a youngster as one-person greeting committee proffers a picnic lunch.

Successes are few but sweet. Without batting an eyelash our staunch heroine explains the voting process to a group of women tending the home fires while their husbands are away. On this election day, principles win over expediency. Even though there is no one looking over her shoulder, she refuses to let an underage (but already married) girl vote. (In Iran, 16 is the legal voting age.)

Meanwhile the soldier shows increasing familiarity with the "city girl," as he calls her. Neither "Turkish" accent (meaning northwest Iranian) nor apparently humble background deter her from revealing nearly imperceptible signs of interest herself. When he suggests that there be elections every few months so she can come back, her non-response is as telling as if she had answered. A two-prop puddle hopper magically appears to ferry her back to the mainland, so it's back to his cot by the shore for the simple soldier.

Payami is at his absurdist best when the soldier halts at a solitary red light in the middle of the sandy barrens. Here's the background: Against stiff competition, Iranian driving habits are among the worst in the world. It took Imam Khomeini to declare that it was haram (forbidden) to go through a red light even to make a dent among the most flagrant abusers of traffic scofflaws. So here the soldier and election rep sit patiently for a green light. Finally tedium nudges practicality, and they roll on to the next polling place. Other point: See if you catch a subliminal reference to the messy Florida election in 2000.

"Secret Ballot" boasts Farzad Djodat's great photography with natural light and shadow carefully calibrated to the times of day in the story. Michael Galasso's spare score successfully harmonizes with the landscape. N.Y. Human Rights Watch International Film Festival audiences are fortunate to preview this film in advance of its U.S. release later this summer.

Originally Published June 12, 2002

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