I did not understand all of “Secret Ballot,” but I was undoubtedly intrigued by all of it. The film was written and directed by Iranian-Canadian filmmaker Babak Payani, and it plays as a low-key absurdist satire of the Iranian voting process. This is something about which I know almost nothing, and yet I found it quite compelling, its political messages universal enough to engage even an Ugly American like myself.The film takes place on a remote unnamed island, where an election official has come to collect ballots for an unnamed political office. This alone presents some clever situations, as the various residents of the island seem to have no cares for such an election. How will picking two names off a list - many of the voters have never even heard of the candidates - help them in their own private struggles?
The movie’s real subversion comes from the gender of the election agent - a woman. Played by Nassim Abdi, the woman (no character names are ever given) faces a difficult struggle: who, in Iran, will listen to a woman? But her conviction for the election process is so solid that she manages to convince others that voting will indeed result in change.
So here we have a set-up for a double message. The woman’s urging other women to vote without the influence of their husbands reminds us yet again that there are still parts of the world where women are considered second class citizens. Meanwhile, the woman’s firm beliefs in the power of democracy tells us that it’s not the office or the candidate, but the sheer act of voting itself that gives power to the people.
But “Secret Ballot” is not a result of blind faith in democracy. The voters the woman and her stubborn military escort (Cyrus Abidi) meet throughout their election day journey represent the various problems with the system. One family is shocked to learn their candidates are not on the approved list. A man who wants to vote for God feels the merely human candidates have no control over their own fate, much less his. One wife is ineligible to vote, as she’s only twelve years old - old enough to marry, too young to vote.There are bits here that seem to stretch too far for a satiric meaning (a street light in the middle of nowhere, for example), but for the most part, the film is smart enough for its message to be interesting even to folks who know nothing about Iran. And while Payani’s slow, deliberate style may cause the movie to drag more than it should, the film is still quite engaging. Anyone looking for a solid, well-formed satire will surely find something to enjoy here.