Secret Ballot (Raye makhfi, 2001)

Director/Screenwriter: Babak Payami

Politics & Movies Blog-a-thon

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This post is part of the Politics & Movies Blog-a-thon hosted by Jason Bellamy at The Cooler.

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It’s Election Day in the United States, a day that has been hyped across the country and around the world as either the beginning of Hope and Change or the continuation of Bad Old Bushism. If Barack Obama is elected president, it will certainly be an historic moment for the African-American community, but will it really make the kind of difference the true believers think it will?

Having your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground is always the prudent thing to do, especially in a representative democracy, and especially in one as large and diverse as the United States. An object lesson in the wisdom of this advice can be found in Secret Ballot, a film that premiered just a year after the Election Dysfunction of 2000 that shows us the beauty and limitations of democracy in a gently satiric way.

The film opens on a visually stunning image of an airplane flying during the rising of the sun. A box emerges from the plane’s open cargo doors, its white parachute flapping and then filling with air, making perhaps a very intentional parallel with the “miracle” from which cargo cults arose. The box floats like an angel down to a barren land on the edge of an ocean, touching exactly where it was intended to land—at an army patrol site. In this remote island location, the site contains little more than the two infantrymen who work in shifts, taking turns sleeping in the bottom half of a bunk bed and sharing one gun to use as they patrol for smugglers working among the islands.

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The night-shift soldier pries open the box and reads an enclosed letter. He then wakes his comrade (Cyrus Abidi) and tells him that it is Election Day in Iran and that he will be escorting an agent around the island collecting votes from its inhabitants. Then, the night-shift soldier prepares for a good day’s sleep. The idea that anyone could sleep out in the open in a desert during the day is only the first absurdity of life on the island. We’ll encounter more as the day goes on.

About half an hour later, a boat pulls up to the small dock at the soldiers’ post, and a woman alights. In contrast to the pillowy white parachute that delivered the box, she is a whirlwind wrapped in a black chador that billows in the strong ocean breeze and the wake of her own energetic movement. She is the election agent (Nassim Abdi), and the soldier refuses to escort a woman around. “I’m in charge here,” retorts the agent as she eagerly goes through the contents of the box. She shows the soldier the written orders he has to follow and then spreads out the map of the areas they need to reach. Off they go, the soldier grumbling all the way.

The first person they see is a man who is running along the road. The soldier is sure he’s a smuggler and is quick to put his hand to his rifle. The agent says he’s a voter and must feel free from intimidation. She orders the soldier to catch up with him. When they pull in front of him, the soldier demands to know why he was running. “Is running a crime?” the man asks defensively. Of course not, the agent says and goes into her election day rap; the man wishes to vote, but not with the soldier hanging around. “I want my vote to be secret,” which the agent assures him is his right. The absurdity of chasing a voter has a familiar ring to any voter who has ever been pandered to or identified as part of a crucial voting block.

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The rather menacing next scene shows a large truck chasing after the agent and soldier. The truck stops, and a man emerges; he has brought voters from another island to cast their ballots. One by one, women in colorful but very severe chadors, some with masks that hide their faces from prying male eyes, climb out of the back of the truck. The truck driver orders the soldier away, saying their husbands would not like them “consorting” with a strange man. “What about you?” the soldier retorts. “They know me.” The women swarm the agent as she explains the process. When one of the women produces her ID, the agent rejects her for being under the legal voting age of 16. One of the other women says “She can marry at 12. Why can’t she vote?” Stumped, the agent pauses and then just repeats, “I’m sorry. It’s not allowed.”

So far, voting is going smoothly. The soldier still can’t see the importance of voting, thinking that you can get much more done with a gun than a ballot box. Unswayed, the agent confidently answers all of the soldier’s objections, saying that when people vote, it helps their government improve things. She’ll be singing a different tune when she starts running into roadblocks.

The agent’s quest for votes takes her to the beach, where fishermen are mending their nets. Although they come from another country, they tell the soldier that there are Iranians on the boat from which they came. The next hilarious scene shows the soldier rowing the agent out to the boat. From a distance, we see the men on board line up and a power boat buzz by.

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Cut to the agent and soldier back on the road. They have a passenger, a young woman who was trying to run off with a foreigner who was arrested as a smuggler. The soldier, his Iranian manhood offended, says, “Maybe they can make a law so our women can’t go off and marry foreigners!” The agent counters, “Maybe they’ll make a law that lets a woman marry whom she likes.” In a small gesture I didn’t see coming, the young woman tries to give the agent her ID while they are driving so she can vote. “Not here,” the agent says. “We’ll do it when we get you home.” “They won’t let me vote there,” the young woman says. Sure enough, the women in the compound will not vote without the consent of their men, who are at a funeral in a cemetery that no women—not even the widow—can enter. These feminist concerns are laced throughout the film, though it isn’t heavy-handed and is usually emphasized unpolemically through actions.

Another stop for the moving polling place is a compound run by Granny Baghoo. The agent’s knocks on doors remain unanswered, perhaps on Granny Baghoo’s orders. A peddler sitting outside the compound agrees to show the agent his ID if she buys something; so dedicated is she that she agrees, essentially, to buy his vote. When she chooses a doll, he produces his ID. “You’re not Iranian. You can’t vote,” she complains. “All I said is that I would show you my ID.” Things continue on this way in the compound until she finally finds a man and starts her rap on the importance of voting. He keeps shaking his head at all her arguments. Finally, he spits out, “I don’t speak Farsi.” The agent returns to the jeep. “They don’t need to vote,” the agent says, much to the soldier’s surprise. “Granny Baghoo has a government all her own.”

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The soldier and the agent finally come to a real and metaphorical crossroads when he stops the jeep as her deadline for returning to the post to catch her boat approaches. “Why have you stopped?” the agent asks impatiently. “The light is red,” he says and points to a stoplight in the middle of nowhere. This scene, I learned, is a lampoon on Imam Khomeni’s edict forbidding drivers from blowing through stoplights, an action taken to curb the horrible driving habits of Iranians. Obviously, this order makes no sense in a place with maybe a dozen cars all told, yet the soldier obeys the law the agent has been singing the praises of all during their journey. In her panic to see that the votes she collected are not invalidated because she missed the boat, the agent gets out of the car and screams that the law doesn’t matter in a place like this, in a desert with no real streets or traffic. The absurdity of the light even being there and the contradictory concerns of the agent are comments on how out of touch the central government can be with the needs of all its citizens, a fact that has been voiced over and over again by the voters the agent tries unsuccessfully to persuade to exercise their franchise. In the end, both the agent and the soldier will understand more than they did when the day began.

It would be easy to see the soldier and the agent—both unnamed—as props in a political system the director uses to make his points. But the script is so smart in weaving its messages into believable encounters, conversations, and wry situations that it never feels forced. It is such a pleasure to learn something valuable while being extremely entertained.

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It’s rather interesting how many male Iranian filmmakers have made or collaborated on films sympathetic to the plight of women in their country, for example, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Pahani, Kambuzia Partovi, and Babak Payami in this, his directing debut. Even more startling is the fact that Iranian women, such as Samira Makhmalbaf and Rakhshān Bani E’temād, have come to prominence as directors working today. Payami mines the rich vein of contradiction in Iranian society, observing the repressiveness of religious dogma contrasted against the promise of a democratic voting process promoted, not surprisingly, by a female election agent. Nonetheless, the failures of the feminist movement, the most prominent example of a social issue this film addresses, serve to remind the agent and others who believe the government will solve all their problems that they need to take action on diverse fronts.

To keep this moment in American history in perspective, the delightful and wise Secret Ballot is must-viewing after the election.

  • Jason Bellamy spoke:
    5th/11/2008 to 8:39 am

    Marilyn: Thanks for this submission. I’ve never seen the film (hadn’t even heard of it, to be honest), but your appreciation makes me feel like I have.
    I loved this observation: “It is such a pleasure to learn something valuable while being extremely entertained.”
    What a rare treat that is. Makes me want to see the movie!

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    5th/11/2008 to 9:00 am

    I saw Secret Ballot in its theater run. Had more Americans bothered to see this film, they would have understood the problem with imposing “democracy” in the Mid-East.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/11/2008 to 9:01 am

    Jason – Welcome to Ferdy on Films, the place where films nobody ever heard of take center stage!
    I hope you do see this film. It is one of the great Iranian films from new directors that started to appear on the scene in the early 2000s. I feel its message is both particular and universal, ephemeral depending on the laws at the time but also timeless about human nature.
    Peter – The fact is that it is hard to both impose democracies and keep the ones we have truly democratic. The states-rights movement made inroads in dismantling our federal, representative democracy. California’s establishment of direct democracy legislation is, I believe, a failure. Sometimes you need legislators to take the high ground and do what is right for all the citizens of a state, not just the ones they represent. Look at Prop 8; it’s a sad comment on how personal issues can defeat justice.

  • Rick spoke:
    6th/11/2008 to 10:41 am

    Marilyn, thanks for the provocative piece on a provocative film. Just one comment, since I haven’t seen it: what a marvelously sinister first image, the black-robed figure carrying what? A ballot box?.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/11/2008 to 11:17 am

    Yes, that is the election agent, seen more benignly in the bottom photo, carrying a cardboard ballot box covered with white paper. I kept wondering when it would blow away in the strong winds that seemed to be present a lot.

  • Jamie spoke:
    7th/11/2008 to 9:59 am

    I feel much better (only slightly) that I’m not the only one who hadn’t heard of this film. It’s definitely on my list.
    Just based on the few screencaps that you provided, the production design and cinematography look simple, yet stunning. Kudos for picking a film that most of us have seemed to overlook.

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