Secret Ballot

Director: Babak Payami

Although it touches on women’s issues that are at the centre of Jafar Panahi’s recent The Circle and Abbas Kiarostami’s 10, Babak Payami’s Secret Ballot represents a very different kind of Iranian cinema. A visual stylist with an absurdist sense of humour, Payami won a special jury prize for direction at last year’s Venice Film Festival for this inventive and smart comedy about the rocky path democracy must tread in a country that has been functioning for some time without it.
On national election day, a ballot box parachutes down from the sky on the desert-island landscape of the Persian Gulf resort island of Kish. A bemused young soldier whose normal routine is guarding the deserted beach gets assigned to accompany a government bureaucrat in gathering votes. To his ill-concealed amazement, the official turns out to be femaleoa determined enthusiast who arrives from the city in a cumbersome full-length chador. Together, this odd couple chase down votersosometimes literallyoby jeep and, at one point, by boat. The bemused soldier plays peasant Sancho Panza to the idealistic agent’s earnest Quixote as she searches for ballots, cheerfully copes with unanswerable questions regarding the rules for voting, and patiently explains that God is not an ‘approved’ candidate.
More a gentle comedy than a blazing political comment, Secret Ballot nevertheless makes pertinent points through its often bizarrely humorous observations and striking visuals. Payami’s film is didactic in a peculiar, teasing fashion. At times the film suggests that the election may really be as meaningless as the reluctant voters claim. Even so, as the agent goes about her duties and gradually develops a grudgingly respectful relationship with the soldier, she achieves something not unlike heroic status.
Iran-Italy-Canada-Switzerland, 2001. English subtitles. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 105 mins.

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