Iranian films that make it to American shores generally fall into two categories: sensitive dramas featuring young children, à la The White Balloon and Children of Heaven, or pointed political statements about the plight of women, such as The Circle and The Day I Became a Woman. Secret Ballot is something else entirely, a subtly satirical comedy that presents a dialogue of sorts between conservative and liberal elements inside contemporary Iran.
Two soldiers spend their days patrolling a barren strip of land that runs along the sea. Their assignment is to watch for smugglers, but given the inhospitable landscape -- and their own weary demeanor -- it seems clear that few pirates ever venture ashore. The soldiers seem resigned to what has become a very boring daily routine. Today, however, will be different.
Instead of smugglers, an election official arrives by boat to give the few residents of this remote island an opportunity to cast their ballots in what presumably is some sort of national election. It falls to the soldier on duty (Cyrus Ab, who, like all the actors in the film, is a nonprofessional) to drive the bureaucrat around the island in his jeep.
The soldier is shocked to discover that the election agent (Nassim Abdi) is female. Under strict Islamic rule, a man and woman who are not related may not so much as converse without a chaperone present. The nameless soldier does not disguise his displeasure at his assignment. To make matters worse, this "Girl," as the credits label her, is an idealist who is naive enough to believe that voting actually can make a difference in a society not known for its democratic principles. Full of optimism for a more open society, she asks her escort to remove his rifle, explaining, "People must feel free on election day." The soldier refuses. Set in his attitudes and unbending in his narrow-mindedness, he clearly represents the country's old guard.
The island's residents offer a third perspective. "Elections will do us no good," snaps one man. A woman barred from attending a funeral because of her sex laments, "Voting isn't important to us. We aren't even allowed in a cemetery."
Uneventful by American standards, Secret Ballot unfolds in lengthy, exceedingly static wide shots -- some as long as three minutes. The camera sits on a tripod, mutely observing what is going on, yet making it clear that both central characters have learned something important by the end of the day. Written and directed by Babak Payami (One More Day), the film picked up the Special Jury Prize for Best Director at the 2001 Venice Film Festival, as well as the FIPRESCI Award at last year's London Film Festival. While lacking the emotional resonance of such films as Baran and Color of Paradise, Secret Ballot offers both a gentle humor and a sly but unmistakable optimism about what life in Iran might one day be.