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After the electoral car wreck that was our last presidential contest, Americans aren’t exactly in a position to judge other countries’ voting foibles too harshly. And more than 200 years into our governmental experiment, we certainly don’t have the benefit of claiming that we’re still working out the kinks in the democratic process. In Secret Ballot, the charming, languorous second film by the Iranian writer-director Babak Payami, voting is framed as something new, strange, and fragile, which the citizenry regards with everything from wonder to disdain to fear. The movie, set in one of the remotest parts of Payami’s homeland, is about practicing democracy, in both senses of that verb.
Of course, we can only imagine what sort of advantage government officials are taking of the popular innocence back in Tehran. But seen from Washington, the naivete of these voters out in the Persian provinces seems more refreshing than bumbling or ripe for exploitation.
The action takes place over a single cloudless Election Day on a small, dusty island in the Persian Gulf. Just after sunrise, a plane flies over the heads of a couple of scruffy soldiers guarding what seems to be an insignificant, if beautiful, stretch of coastline. The men work in shifts, taking turns sleeping on a single rusty bed they’ve dragged outside, where it offers relief from the heat and a view of the shimmering water. Via parachute, the plane drops a crate, which one of the soldiers pries open to reveal a plain white ballot box. Looking about as sturdy as a paper bag, the box is nearly as mysterious to the soldiers as the Coke bottle that falls to earth in 1980’s The Gods Must Be Crazy, a film to which Secret Ballot owes a pretty big debt.
The young government election official (Nassim Abdi) who arrives on the scene by boat a few minutes later is nearly as exotic as that box to the stocky, unexpressive soldier (Cyrus Abidi) who greets her. First of all, she’s a woman, which completely surprises him; and then there are the facts that she’s from the big city and talks a mile a minute and is always in a rush. She essentially commandeers the soldier’s Jeep and him as her driver, and the pair begins a day of racing around the island together, trying to find as many locals as possible so that the woman can begin the odd, often very funny effort of explaining to them how to vote.
The best such exchange happens when the burka-clad official and the soldier come across an old man tending to a solar-energy site out in the middle of nowhere. He offers them tea, then tells the woman, “I know no one but God Almighty. If I vote, I must vote for God.”
“But God isn’t a candidate!” she replies.
“God is my candidate,” he answers, smiling and unmoved.
This is the sort of thing she and the soldier have to deal with all day long. At one point, the camera finds them literally looking under rocks to find marked ballots. Later, she chases down a potential voter who the soldier is convinced is a criminal. After she pulls out a blank ballot for the out-of-breath man, she complains to the soldier, “You’re panicking people on Election Day!”
For all the wide-open expanses of its exterior shots—there is not a single indoor scene in the entire film—and despite its slow pace, Secret Ballot feels a bit overstuffed, at least thematically. As a decidedly G-rated flirtation develops between the woman and the soldier, the picture, an Italian-Iranian co-production, begins to look like a romance. It also has elements of absurdist comedy. But mostly it operates—very gently, given the vigilance of Iranian censors—as a parable, or as a series of parables, on everything from democratization to the rights of women to religious piety and intolerance.
Payami was born in Iran but educated in Canada; at 36, he’s younger than both Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the two directors who’ve done the most to turn Iran into a hotbed of contemporary filmmaking. Payami clearly wants Secret Ballot to succeed both as a critique of specific conditions in Iran and as a larger commentary on civil society, so the film’s island is Iranian by geography but also represents a tabula rasa. And there are symbols everywhere: When the Jeep, inevitably, breaks down in the afternoon heat, the soldier announces, a little portentously, “Today has been too much for it.” And what to make of the fact that the election official’s character is referred to in the credits only as “Girl”?
Still, except for a too-sugary, too-direct romantic moment at the end, Secret Ballot succeeds in knitting together its disparate strands, thanks largely to Abdi’s appealing performance as a young bureaucrat yet to lose her idealistic energy. After all, if we took around ballots to our citizens, well more than half of whom don’t vote even in the biggest elections, they’d probably be nearly as clueless about the identities of the candidates as the Iranians in the film are. And their attempts at parceling out their votes would likely seem just about as arbitrary, if a whole lot less heartwarming. Maybe that’s the real reason we end up rooting for Girl: She represents a society that at least appears desperate to convert nonvoters, rather than one content to ignore them. CP