written and directed by Babak Payami
with Nassim Abdi and Cyrus Abidi
opens Aug. 16 at Seven Gables
In a bleak island landscape out of Beckett, a soldier reluctantly finds himself chauffeuring a woman collecting ballots for election day. The stolid, meaty soldier (Cyrus Abidi) is completely unaccustomed to taking orders from a brusque, self- assured "city girl" (Nassim Abdi). Yet in this reversal of stations, the often charming Secret Ballot provides a parable of Iranian society undergoing revolutionary change.
The two characters' names are never spoken during the course of a long, dusty day spent together. Their unlikely pairing would be the obvious basis for a romantic comedy in the West, but in an Iranian film such feelings must remain implicit. The girl is all business, idealistically preaching the virtues of democracy to both the suspicious soldier and mostly indifferent citizenry. With the zeal of a door-to-door saleswoman, she pounces on any potential voter she spies, literally rowing for votes to collect the ballots of fishermen offshore.
Yet rejection takes its toll. The driven heroine is reproached, "Your ballots mean more to you than the people." Fortunately, flashes of absurdist humor enliven Ballot's somewhat tediously pedantic pace. In the silence there is silent comedy, as when the dutiful soldier insists they must obey a nonfunctioning red light. Sure, he's an unthinking peasant, but Ballot also grants him a peasant's wisdom. To the impatient electoral agent, he opines, "Nothing ever happens on time"—nor, by extension, does democracy.
The movie's political critique is necessarily veiled, since Iran's surging young population is still hemmed in by the rigid old theocracy. Ballot also suggests how the sheer weight of tradition slows suffrage.
Elaborating on that theme during his SIFF visit this spring, the Canadian-Iranian dual citizen Babak Payami explained that the people represented in his film "have their own government. They're fine on their own. It doesn't mean that they don't appreciate and understand democracy, nor does it mean that they don't need democracy. It's less the people clinging on to the traditions than the inability of the establishment . . . to connect with them."
At the same time, "The hoopla of democracy" mixes with "this sort of '40s black-and-white romantic comedy aspect. In a way, this is all an excuse to portray a small love story."
Indeed, the bickering twosome inevitably soften toward each other. (At one point she pulls out a pocket mirror and covertly primps for him.) Ballot's sweet, sparse coda makes clear how much the soldier looks forward to the next election in four years' time.