starring Nassim Abdi, Cyrus Abidi, Youssef Habashi, Farrokh Shojaii
written and directed by Babak Payami
by Walter Chaw It begins and ends with waiting, while the middle of Babak Payami's Secret Ballot (Raye makhfi) is invested in the Theatre of the Absurd--this is Samuel Beckett, in other words, applied to the Iranian voting process, as an unnamed election agent (Nassim Abdi) travels to a remote Persian island on a quest to gather votes from citizens who may not know that it's election time, are probably unfamiliar with the candidates, and almost certainly aren't affected by the outcome anyway. If anything, Payami's picture confirms that things are the same all over.
Marked, like most Iranian cinema, by stunning panoramas and a leisurely pace perfect for introspective topics, Secret Ballot is a didactic exercise told in broad strokes. It pairs the election agent with a similarly unnamed soldier (Cyrus Abidi), placing them in an under-used jeep as they trundle along the flat brown plains of the unnamed island in search of the atoll's paranoid hermit inhabitants. Each encounter illustrates a different difficulty for the election agent, the first being the fact that the agent is a woman (the soldier initially refuses to follow her orders), the second being that her first voter appears to be some sort of criminal fleeing from the appearance of an armed grunt in an army jeep.
As their circular quest continues (like many Beckett plays, the idea of forward motion is illusory, with events doubling back to the beginning), the pair encounter small pockets of habitation: one presents the agent with the question of why children cannot vote, another with the problem of favoured candidates not being on the ballot, and another with the ways in which religion sometimes hampers the voting process. Steadfastly adhering to The Law, the agent's initial rigidity gives way eventually to frustration and then equivocation, culminating in the picture's best moment: the agent finds herself compared to a traffic light stuck in the middle of a blasted emptiness.
En route to telling a small tale about how difficult it is to get people to vote in some parts of Iran, Payami gently chronicles many of the societal ills afflicting Iran's violently patriarchal society and the ever-looming threat of dogmatic theocracy. (Secret Ballot could just as easily have been shot in rural Mississippi.) The picture has a minor triumph in its eloquent suggestion that the agent's understanding of the futility of the process has done nothing to mar her faith in the power of the symbolism of that process.
More importantly, Secret Ballot's mordant pacing and acerbic dialogue elevates a relatively simplistic fable into something complex and satisfyingly perverse. It is that most daring of satires grown from a society afraid of ideas and getting in its sharpest digs at the body impolitic just beneath the radar. The most valuable thing about what appears a small film dealing with a very particular political concern distinguishes itself by the end to be as thematically twisted and humane as "Waiting for Godot". It is the same rare clime to which No Man's Land aspired, though Secret Ballot flies on better wings. Originally published: August 7, 2002.