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Given a choice between North America and one of the censor-ridden nations of George W. Bush’s Axis of Evil, most filmmakers would probably choose to work in the former. Iranian-born director Babak Payami, however, has traveled from Toronto to Tehran to make his two features—including the new Secret Ballot—and is making his next film in Iran as well.

“Why Iran?” he asks of himself. “It starts with the fact that I’m Iranian and continues with how I was stimulated by the situation in Iran.”

The 36-year-old filmmaker has lived in Canada since 1980, and his family emigrated from Iran when he was only 5, moving first to a neighboring country. “I lived in Afghanistan from 1971 to 1980. I saw the proverbial thing hit the thing,” he says with a laugh.

After studying cinema at the University of Toronto, Payami says, “I was in the process of banging on doors, like any young filmmaker. I took a couple of weeks’ vacation, and I went back to Iran. It wasn’t really with the ambition of making films there that I went back there. The first week I was there, I jumped on a public bus, and I realized that there was a metal rod separating men and women. By the time I got off the bus, I had an idea for a film fully developed in my head.

“I came back to Toronto and put together the elements to make the film. Things started to snowball from there. I made a second film, and now a third, and potentially will make more films in Iran. Obviously, when you’re a filmmaker, you’re a filmmaker everywhere. I think a filmmaker might potentially be thinking of making a film while doing an interview with you.”

Secret Ballot, the tale of an idealistic young woman who arrives in a remote region of Iran to record the votes of people who are generally uninterested in or unaware of the election, comes from an idea by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of Iran’s best-regarded contemporary filmmakers. Yet Payami did the post-production in Rome, thanks to a co-production deal with Fabrica, a United Colors of Benetton subsidiary. “I worked at Cinecitta,” he says. “Probably a dream for any new filmmaker.”

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Payami’s Canadian passport makes global travel a little easier in the post-Sept. 11 climate, but he still has to submit his scripts to the censors, just like anyone else who shoots films in Iran.

“Those who quit, should,” he announces with a cocky grin. “That’s the only answer I’ll give to the issue of censorship. I have no access to the sausage factory. I don’t know how it’s done.”

Secret Ballot has yet to be approved for commercial release in Iran, and Payami admits that Iranian authorities were suspicious of a Canadian citizen making films in their country. But he says that he didn’t notice this until after completing the movie. “When I started, I didn’t think about any of this,” he notes. “I really don’t consider what people will presume, how people will react, be it the audience or the establishment. This is part of the nature of independent filmmaking. You just focus on what you have to do. The minute you start considering, you face the situation where you’re self-censoring.”

Although Payami goes to the trouble of making movies in Iran, he rejects the idea that Secret Ballot is specifically about that country. “The film obviously does not purport to display the mechanics of the election process—anywhere,” he says. “On one level, the film is a road movie that portrays the problems of the integration of democracy. I think that is an issue that we face here in the United States as much as we face in Iran.

“On another level, the film concerns itself with the fundamental question of the level of involvement of the people at large in the politics of the political establishment. I think that is also as valid a question in the United States as it is in Iran. I think these universal aspects of the film were the driving force in my determination to do it. However, the film also has specific relevance to situations that exist in countries like Iran.”

Only quite recently have Iranian directors dared to make films with women protagonists, notably Jafar Panahi’s The Circle and Marziyeh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman. Secret Ballot is another example of this new trend, but Payami declines to discuss his film in such terms. “Do we want to limit our view of the film to ‘Is this a window to Iranian society?’ For the film, it’s not really relevant to portray accurately and precisely the position of women in Iran. It deals with more fundamental and probably broader issues.”

Payami repeatedly refers to “those kinds of societies,” apparently meaning Islamic ones, and notes that Secret Ballot never actually mentions Iran. Still, he concedes that the film “does show the limitations that women face in those kinds of societies, and probably the attitudes against them. On the other hand, it shows that they are very persistent and determined individuals who fight for every instance of freedom and every instance of their rights. We are perceiving women in those countries inaccurately, I think, as passive victims of oppression.”

Switching from defense to offense, Payami asks, “Would you say that Friday the 13th is a film specifically about the United States and American society? You can’t say that Americans are running around chopping each other’s guts out day in and day out. I face a similar thing when I go to Iran. People say, ‘Americans are really violent people. Look at that film, the way they treat each other.’

“I think one would undermine the artistic values of a film,” he adds, “no matter where it comes from, if one limited the interpretation of that film to being a direct reflection of what that society is about.”

Anyone who’s seen a few Iranian films, however, will recognize Secret Ballot’s kinship with the work of Makhmalbaf, Meshkini, and Abbas Kiarostami. The film was even shot on the island of Kish, where Makhmalbaf and Meshkini have previously worked.

“From a practicality standpoint, friends of mine have produced films there and paved the way,” Payami explains. “It gave the kinds of settings I needed for the film, but it’s also very modern and convenient; you have nice hotels there. In some shots in the film, I could have moved the camera 2 inches and you would see a big mall. It has that barren, untouched landscape and the beautiful seashore, and five minutes later you can be sitting in an air-conditioned hotel.”

Like the work of better-known Iranian directors, Secret Ballot is deadpan, naturalistic, and open-ended. “The form and the content are so tightly integrated into one another that you can’t distinguish,” Payami says. “The film deals with isolation, miscommunication, and alienation. The long shots show the isolated environment in which certain misunderstandings could develop.”

American commercial filmmaking, he argues, is “a very large machinery that imposes itself on the subject matter with a view to manipulating the audience. I don’t mean that in a demeaning way; that’s just the nature of the beast.” Iranian films, Payami says, “engage in a dialectic with the audience and demand from the audience to have an input.”

“In a way, you can put Hollywood and Iranian cinema at the two poles of the international film machine. The mechanics of what they’re doing are different, but they’re both very effective with completely opposite production philosophies. In a way, they’re complementary. I am sure that Iranian cinema learned a lot from Hollywood, and that Hollywood learned a lot from Iranian cinema.”

It’s not clear that Hollywood has yet taken much from Iranian films, but in one shot Payami straddles the boundary between the two. Although it looks like a typically lo-tech Iranian movie, Secret Ballot includes a digital-animation effect. “I wanted a big military aircraft to drop the ballot box,” the director explains, “but on the border of Iran it’s not easy to have the military bring in a C-130 and drop something. So I stole that shot of the military aircraft, and then I digitally added the parachute drop.

“That’s the only one,” he adds, laughing. “They offered me some dinosaurs and I said no.” —Mark Jenkins