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Secret Ballot

In Iran, a major new voice is emerging.  

Year: 2001 
Running Time:
Aspect Ratio: Unknown 
Certificate: BBFC U Cert – Universal 
Subtitles: The level of subtitling in this film is unknown to WSC 
Directed by Unknown 
Starring: Unknown  

Secret Ballot, a film from Iran, opens with a lyrical flourish: silhouetted against an orange dawn, a militray plane parachutes a box to the ground below. Slightly surreal and effortlessly beautiful, the prologue actually belies the movie that follows.

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, 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.

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 film maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf for the story idea.

Democracy may be a work-in-progress in Iran, but its film culture is world class. As we watch the agent look literally under every rock to find voters, her actions seem more than an ardent expression of civic vigour -- they feel like an inadvertent rebuke to a complacent American electorate.

Neil Maguire

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Screenings of this film:

2002/2003 Spring Term (35mm)