(Raye Makhfi)

 Directed by Babak Payami.  2001.

Talking Pictures alias







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On Election Day on a remote island in the Persian Gulf, an airplane drops a parachute containing a ballot box filled with registration materials and ballots. A soldier (Cyrus Abidi) retrieves the material but is astonished when he discovers that the official who arrives to run the election is a young woman (Nassim Abdi). The official (unnamed) is an outspoken idealist who believes that voting can give citizens the opportunity to make a difference, while the soldier does not see any value in it. Secret Ballot by Babak Payami is a lightweight but charming Iranian film about the frustrations an election official encounters while attempting to collect votes in a place where there is no tradition of democracy. In this case, the official's problems are compounded by the fact that she is a woman in a male-dominated society and must combat ideas about what is proper for women to be doing.

As the soldier drives her around the island in his jeep, the quest for votes leads to one absurd situation after another. The unlikely pair meets a man running across the desert that the soldier suspects of being a smuggler and has to persuade him to vote by pointing his gun at him. They must also contend with a truckload of women and a single man who insists on casting all of their votes for them. In other situations, women in a nomadic camp refuse to vote without permission of the men who are out fishing, and a Muslim at a solar energy site will vote for only one candidate -- GOD -- who isn't even on the ballot. In one of the more surreal episodes, the soldier refuses to drive past a red traffic light standing in the middle of the desert even though he knows it is broken and will never turn green. 

Simplistic ideas about the value of democracy are tested against the reality that the islanders must face. One potential voter asks the official, "What do you know about us and our problems? We have to hide our feelings here." In another case, women cannot vote because they are forbidden to look at the photographs of the male candidates. Another time, the official cannot register the votes of men at a cemetery because women are forbidden to enter the sacred ground. It is not clear if the film was made to promote democracy or to show it as being ludicrous. Apparently the Iranian officials took it seriously because the film was banned in Iran. What is clear is that unless an electorate is informed and feels a stake in the outcome, the process of voting is a sham and, as the protagonists in Secret Ballot found out, cannot be imposed with high minded speeches or a gun pointed at the voter's head.  

Howard Schumann
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