Secret Ballot

Reviewed by Dennis Morton

Now playing at The Nickelodeon Theatre in downtown Santa Cruz.


The secret ballot is a cornerstone of democracy. It's a device that allows a people either to endorse or to thumb their noses at those among them with the temerity to run for public office. The secret ballot is a powerful tool of democracy, but it's no guarantee of it. What if the only candidates on the official slate were wealthy and powerful men? In that case, the secret ballot would be but a chimera, a cruel prop in a choreographed illusion.

"Secret Ballot" is the name of a new feature film by Iranian born director Babak Payami. I don't believe he's suggesting that Iranian elections are pure sham in this strange film, but he is suggesting that people in all cultures are wise enough to sort out the simulacra from the authentic.

"Secret Ballot" is set on a desolate desert island. Going into the movie, most of us will realize that it's an Iranian film, and no doubt some will recognize that Farsi is the common tongue. But Payami chooses not to give names to his lead characters. The adult women wear chadors, and the I'm generally reluctant to disclose much of the story line of a film. For me, surprise is of the essence in most narratives, print or cinema. But, in "Secret Ballot", the 'what' of the movie seems no more important than the 'how' of it. So, briefly, here's what happens.

The movie takes place on national election day. In the morning, a minor government official arrives by speedboat on the desert island. The election agent, a young woman, is dropped at a shoreline guardpost, manned by two soldiers. With one gun, one watch, one bed and one blanket between them, they're on the lookout for smugglers. But on this day, the soldier on watch must accompany the election agent on her rounds. Like a country doctor toting a satchel of pills and medical appurtenances, this election agent will engage in a series of house calls. But her mission is to cure the body politic,and her satchel, a portable ballot box.

What the soldier and the election official discover, about themselves and about their fellow citizens, during the course of this basically 9 to 5 day, is what "Secret Ballot" is all about. I won't tell you what they find. But this quote in the film's production notes by director Payami provides a clue. He says: the illusions of freedom and democracy are potentially as dangerous and counter-productive for any society as dictatorial autocracy. In the production notes he also points out that he was filming "Secret Ballot", in Iran, at the same time that our own national election drama was unfolding in Florida.

I've said that the 'how' in "Secret Ballot" is as important as the 'what'. I'm referring to the director's cinematic technique, which is, by current movie conventions, very unusual. He uses long takes and long shots and employs minimal dialogue. He prefers a stationary camera. Typically, a scene will open with a long shot of a landscape. The camera will linger on it and, almost incidentally, a human presence will enter, slowly. The technique mirrors the idea that the pace of fundamental change is often slow.

If you take a chance on this movie, and I hope you will, look for a scene not far from the end in which the election agent talks with a little girl. It's a scene that's packed with meaning and feeling, at once prophetic, funny, sad and uplifting.
I liked this film a lot. It's a small film, and like so many of its kind, will not enjoy a long run.

For KUSP's Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.