Screened as part of NZIFF 2002
Poking fun at democracy in general and Iranian elections in particular, Secret Ballot is a lightly absurdist parable set on a picturesque, sun-baked island. A determined young returning officer arrives from the mainland to visit the island’s widely interspersed, multi-ethnic communities, soliciting and overseeing the not so secret votes. A firm believer in process and theory, she displays a purposeful insensitivity to whatever the islanders happen to be doing when she gets to them. (She’s not above entering a cemetery, traditionally closed to women, to harass the mourners at a funeral.) She is accompanied on her rounds by a skeptical young soldier, unimpressed by the notion of taking instructions from a woman. There’s a whisper of romantic comedy in their sparring: before the film is over he’s ready to vote – for her, though she’s not on the ballot.
Director Babak Payami has learnt his filmmaking skills in Canada and there is a cosmopolitan touch to his bemusement at so much elaborate machinery put in place to impose the perpetuation of government on a remote and disinterested people. The ballot box is parachuted in; the woman arrives by boat; she’s driven in an army vehicle; a passenger airliner arrives to collect her. There’s a related gag concerning a traffic light in the middle of nowhere and at one stage the film stops in its tracks to contemplate the clanking and grinding of obsolete machinery at an abandoned mine. Working with non-actors, Payami devised the various encounters in collaboration with the locals. At the Toronto Film Festival he admitted that the invading filmmakers bore a certain resemblance to the film’s earnest protagonist. They were, it seems safe to say, much more responsive to island lifestyles, which are depicted with wry affection. — BG
"Beautifully shot, the film employs a lustrous visual style that only makes the subtle, somewhat daft humour more engaging. Payami’s timing is so distinctive and layered that, at times, he suggests an Iranian incarnation of Bill Forsyth with a slightly formalist bent. New and surprising talents emerge from Iran each year and Payami is certainly no exception. Indeed, in a crop of exceedingly talented filmmakers, he emerges as one of the most intriguing and inventive." — Steve Gravestock, Toronto Film Festival