SECRET BALLOT (director/writer: Babak Payami; screenwriter: based on an idea in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s short film “Testing Democracy”; cinematographer: Farzad Jodat; editor: Babak Karimi; music: Michael Galasso; cast: Nassim Abdi (Woman Election Agent), Cyrus Ab (Soldier), Youssef Habashi (Local), Farrokh Shojaii (Local), Gholbahar Janghali (Local); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: G; producers: Marco Muller/Babak Payami; Sony Pictures Classics; 2002-Iran-in Farsi)
“As in practically all Iranian films the cast here is made up of nonprofessionals, and they do themselves a good turn as genuine and marvelously well-conceived characters.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A most amusing satire about the potential of democracy in the mullah-controlled Islamic theocracy of Iran, which was interestingly enough filmed at the same time the Florida votes were being contested during the last U.S. presidential election. It was filmed on the desert island of Kish in the Persian Gulf which was declared a free-trade zone in 1993 (“The Day I Became a Woman” was also shot there), a place where there doesn’t seem to be permanent residencies but is inhabited by those living in tents or huts. It’s directed and scripted by Babak Payami (“One More Day“) from an idea based on Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s short film “Testing Democracy.” Secret Ballot is a well-crafted, perceptive comical exercise on democracy relating to its practicality and theoretical worth.
Early in the morning on an island beach a huge cardboard ballot box packed in a crate is dropped from a plane on a parachute, as a soldier examines it as if it were an alien gift from outer space. The soldier then wakes up his relief as the two soldiers are guarding the beachfront against smugglers, but today is ‘election day’ and the enclosed orders say that at 8 a.m. an election agent will conduct a secret ballot around the island and is to be accompanied by a soldier.
A hurried woman (Nassim Abdi) dressed in the traditional black chador arrives late by motorboat and is told by the motorboat man to be at the same spot by 5 p.m. sharp or he will not wait for her. That a woman is the agent disappoints the reluctant country boy soldier (Cyrus Ab), as he complains that the agent should have been a man and that he can’t take orders from a woman. But the educated city woman is an unrelenting idealist and gives the soldier a civic lecture about how important it is to vote and change things for the better. After convincing the soldier that he better obey his superior’s order, Cyrus drives Nassim around the island in the army Jeep as they track down the isolated island voters ranging from smugglers, fishermen, communal farm workers, an eccentric sun energy experimenter and a group of women transported from another location by truck. To vote they must show their ID and be at least 16 and not be a foreigner, and when voting they are not allowed to write in their candidate but must choose two of the ten names listed on the ballot. If they can’t read, there are photos next to the names. We’re not told what the election is for, but it takes place every four years and one can assume it’s a national election–possibly for a president.
The obsessed woman hopes to get everyone on the island’s vote before 5 p.m. in the legally structured way but runs into obstacles; such as, from the soldier’s initial skepticism, to those who don’t recognize any names on the ballot and want to write-in their own candidates or one even wants to write-in God’s name, to those who want to vote in a group, and to those who argue voting can’t solve their problems and refuse to vote.
Besides the humor derived from the no-nonsense attractive woman and her attempts to convert most islanders into voting, which is a tough sell, there’s also a prickly relationship bordering on what goes for a flirtation, in a country where such public feelings are constrained, that develops between the soldier who knows how to get Nassim stirred up and the relentless woman who is determined to make the system work no matter how negative those around her respond. By the end of the day, the bored soldier wishes to cast his ballot only for Nassim out of the respect he’s gained for her persistence.
I don’t know if this means that there’s some hope for democracy to flourish in Iran or not, or maybe it’s just all government propaganda to show that some change has come, but it makes the diverse Iranian characters depicted not that much stranger than those Floridians voting for president and that in itself is refreshing. As in practically all Iranian films the cast is made up of nonprofessionals, and they do themselves a good turn as genuine and marvelously well-conceived characters. The soldier and woman, nonprofessional actors, as far as I’m concerned give Bogie and Hepburn in “The African Queen” a run for their money as a couple of opposites stuck together in a bad situation.
REVIEWED ON 1/21/2003 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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