Secret Ballot (Raye makhfi)
directed by Babak Payami
(Sony Pictures, 2001)

The first thing you see is a big box with a small box inside it being parachuted from a plane. The next thing you know, it's being carried across the beach by a soldier who's never going to work for Allied Van Lines. After schlepping it back to his minimalist camp -- a bunk bed with one mattress -- on the desert island where he and his comrade in arms are stationed, he pries open the lid. Inside are a ballot box and a letter announcing the imminent arrival of a government agent, whose job it will be to collect the islanders' votes.

It's election day in Iran, and nothing is to stop each citizen of even this remote province from casting his or her Secret Ballot.

Secret Ballot is a Capra-esque tale that transcends its time (the present) and place (Iran) to ask a question so obvious that all the political dramas, comedies, "dramadies" and thrillers ever made in Hollywood seem to have missed: "Why do we vote?"

For the agent (Nassim Abdi), a nameless "city woman" bent on seeing that everyone on the island casts his or her ballot by 5 p.m., the answer seems obvious -- seems, but isn't, because each voter she approaches -- from the nameless guard who drives her around the island (Cyrus Abidi) to the street peddler who won't show his I.D. until she buys something -- has a different reason for not wanting to vote, up to and including the agent's gender.

It's a gag that could run out of gas quickly, but it doesn't, in large part because writer-director Babak Payami does so many nimble variations on his theme.

Part of the fun is simply watching the unlikely pair tackle their impossible task, literally leaving no stone unturned in their search for votes and voters. It's an assignment that could, under different circumstances, have fallen to Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn or Jimmie Stewart and Jean Arthur.

Because despite their differences, there's a begrudging chemistry between the agent, a fast-talking idealist who sometimes seems to explain herself into a corner, and her reluctant chauffeur, who isn't convinced that letting everyone -- including the smugglers he's been sent to crack down on -- choose the next government is such a good idea. "If those crooks vote, I'll be out of a job," he says.

To add to the fun, Payami presents his unlikely pair as two tiny figures amid overwhelming landscapes, thereby diminishing any sense that their formidable effort might serve some greater purpose -- except maybe to make us laugh at the folly of human ambition, or to prod us to ask ourselves, "Why do we vote?"

And therein lies the greatness of Payami's otherwise very humble film. There are no politicians in Payami's political potboiler. It's about "we the people," in all our frustrating glory -- possibly the first piece of political cinema to work from the bottom up and strike gold without ever trying to reach the top.

Secret Ballot won awards at five major international film festivals, including five at Venice. It's not hard to see why. Payami wrings a great deal of ironic humor from his stars, all of whom add to the uncertainty of events by underplaying their parts.

And the visuals themselves are to die for: the desert hasn't looked so good since Lawrence lived in Arabia. Finally, the sparse musical score -- often little more than percussion -- adds an unexpected exotic note.

Nobody ever said running a republic would be easy. Secret Ballot shows us just how frightfully complicated -- and funny -- it can be.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 25 April 2004

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