Between the Bullet and the Ballot

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Review of 'Secret Ballot', director Babak Payami

Take a small island in the Persian Gulf. Add a remote army base, made up of just one bunk bed on the beach, one tent housing a single jeep, and two soldiers, and that is the start of the latest Iranian film to hit Britain.

It's election day and the ballot box is dropped on the island by parachute, with the election official to follow by boat. To the soldier's surprise and initial distaste, she is a woman--and a city woman at that--charged with touring the island with the soldier as escort to take the ballot box to the people, rather than the other way round. This turns out to be a hard job, as the island seems to be inhabited only by shepherds and smugglers. They are understandably upset at being harassed by the soldier, who the official has to restrain from arresting them as they try to vote. She argues with him, asking how people can vote when he keeps on getting his gun out.

Our official is very determined and leaves no stone unturned to get the vote out. She finally leaves the island at sunset, having won over the soldier, who is no longer so grumpy and is much more committed to the project, as well as perhaps to her. He ends up understanding that the secret vote is much more important than he had thought.

With its moody long shots, slow pace and eerie scenery, Babak Payami's film is bidding for the same league as other Iranian film giants such as Abbas Kiarostami, director of 'The White Balloon', and Mohsen and Samira Makhmalbaf, whose film 'Blackboards' was recently shown in England. But unlike those directors Payami spent a large part of his life in Canada before returning recently to Iran to make this film. Perhaps this international perspective allows Payami to claim that his film is not just a beautiful Iranian road movie, offering a window onto Iranian life, but also a lighthearted comment on elections generally, and democracy the world over.

The official is lost for words when asked by a girl aged 12 why she cannot vote: 'I'm old enough to marry--why not to vote?' Parallels in Britain spring to mind, with soldiers being old enough to fight at 17 but too young to vote. Then there are the group of men who argue with her, saying their candidate has not even been put on the list, and the man who only wants to vote for god. And the group of women who, confronted by a female election official, gain the confidence to cast their vote, even though their husbands are out at work and are not there to guide them. The film deals with issues of gender as well as those of democracy. The dilemma of how much this changes the world is posed but left for us to decide.

Bush and Blair often argue they have a right to dominate the world, particularly the Middle East, by saying they stand for democracy, and countries like Iran have none. This film is a gentle statement that gives the lie to that, by pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of Iranian democracy, and of democracy the world over.