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Born in Iran and raised in Canada, filmmaker Babak Payami has a uniquely broad view of world politics. Given the choice between making films in Canada with apparent creative freedom, and making films in Iran that are subject to state and religious censors, Payami chooses the latter. His latest film is Secret Ballot, which explores democracy in rural Iran.

Although “Iranian New Wave” was coined in the late ’70s, the term could as easily apply to Payami and his contemporaries. In the last decade, there have been some outstanding Iranian films that have played the American art-house circuit. Taste of Cherry, Children of Heaven, The White Balloon, Kandahar, and Payami’s own One More Day, and now, Secret Ballot. All these and more show the same spirit of innovation and honesty that have marked the Italian Neorealist and French New Wave periods (although Payami thinks of himself as a ‘naturalist impressionist,’ someone more like Antonioni, who came after the Neorealists).

Payami comes across as fiercely intellectual, the kind of man you’d meet in the darkest, hippest coffee house on campus, talking film with anyone who’d care to match wits. In contrast to his latest film, Secret Ballot, which is slow and sparse, Payami is energetic and talkative. On the subject of filmmaking, especially his own, Payami is particularly enthusiastic. Locations, inspirations, styles, working environments — Payami has something to say about them all.

Between his enthusiasm and my relative ignorance if Iranian culture, it was hard to keep up. I’ve included links in parentheses if you, like me, feel you will benefit from a little background.

Shooting on Kish Island

Payami points out Kish in an atlas“Let me give you a little geography, touristic thing about Kish (map, tourism). It’s actually a fairly old island. They have 7-800 year ruins in there. There’s a history of, for example, Sadee, the great Persian poet, he had traveled to Kish island. During the Shah in the ’70s, he decided that because it’s a beautiful resort — you can see 25 feet deep in the water — the Shah decided to make this an upscale vacation resort like Monaco. And he built a gambling house and a big palace in there which is now a hotel.

“After the revolution (Iranian Revolution) there was a war and all those other things so it was a little bit in hiatus, but then they decided to revive it as a free trade zone because initially it was supposed to become what Dubai (business in Dubai) became — the Arab Emirates became — in the ’70s. So this is an incredible vacation resort. Even during the Shah time there were some beautiful hotels and buildings in there. Aand now, because it’s a free trade zone foreigners don’t need visas and there’s a lot of foreign products.

“Kish island has certain interesting tourist characteristics. First of all there are at least two or three major five-star hotels there. I think there are six or seven big malls on Kish Island, a couple of which are no less in quality and in design than Scarborough Town Center in Toronto. And some of the shots in this film I just have to move the camera a few inches to the right or left and you could see an incredible vacation resort building.

“I was hoping to get this across to the people who would like to get sort of a remote glimpse of Iran without having to go through the process of getting visas and the aggravation of dealing with the authorities. They can just go to Dubai, buy a ticket for fifty bucks, 25 minutes later they’re on Kish Island, which is part of Iran.”

Working under Official Censors in Iran

“Yes, I have a very good concise answer that you would love. ‘Those who quit, should.’

“It’s a situation where I think any artist tries to push the envelope. And making films in Iran adds a whole new dimension to the filmmaking, to the creative process, because you have more than one envelope to push. So it’s fun and it’s stimulating and it’s challenging and it’s frustrating all at the same time, but you are trying to avoid compromising the fundamental integrity of your work and your ideas. And yet you’re trying to coexist in an amicable fashion with the situation.

“But part of it may be even if it’s subconscious, part of the resulting effect is that it helps widen the cracks. And the more walls you have the more barriers you have, the more cracks you have.

Italian Neorealism and Iranian Neorealism

”[Secret Ballot], in a way, it uses natural settings. It uses nonprofessional actors. But because it’s more stylized than those kinds of neorealist Iranian films — or what I’d like to call them is ‘realist expressionist’ films.”

(MM: “I might call Secret Ballot the same thing, wouldn’t you?”)

“We’ll it’s sort of a tendency towards more naturalist impressionist. You know that’s an evolutionary path that takes place. It’s sort of once this realist expressionist style saturates, it bleeds into, it seeps into a more naturalist impressionist side.

“You can still touch people by talking about these grandiose environments of really big rich people, you can go down to the grid of the street and make the simple man’s story who just lost his bicycle. And then 15 years later another one of their group [the Italian Neorealists] who was brought up among them says: ‘Our society is no longer concerned or should no longer be concerned with the little bicycle that’s lost of the little man on the street, we have more sophisticated sexual political and social concerns’ — I’m talking about Antonioni in an interview in 1964.

“And hence he flips the page to a completely different domain in Italian filmmaking, in Italian cinema, which in a way was neither that nor this kind of neorealist, realist expressionist kind of cinema, it was more an impressionist naturalist kind of cinema.

“These are things that are part of the evolutionary process and the evolutionary cycle. It doesn’t mean that this is any better than that or vice-versa, it means that it’s just the tendency things of evolving and saturating to go to another level of expression and another form of expression. And similar things are happening in Iran, or have happened in Iranian cinema.”

Secrets of Secret Ballot

Storyteller Payami“The first shot, where the guy enters with the box and is struggling with the box... it’s like the camera is about 8 feet, 10 feet high. The frame stays the same but the camera moves on both axes as it sinks down to eye level in the duration of the three and a half minutes.

“The point of view stays the same, but the perspective constantly changes, from a pictorial standpoint, and the sound, as it starts expanding in the theater. And that’s what the film is about: changes in perspective. And it basically stylistically sets the premise for the rest of the film.

“It brings you into the whole experience of the sound, and the fact that we’re portraying this monotonous, almost meaningless life. This is my impression of the military establishment. This is what I think the military is. But if you get under their skin, there are human beings.

“The nice thing about Secret Ballot is that despite its sparseness, every little detail there had significance, I really savored it. Finding a little gem and placing it somewhere and not giving a damn if anyone notices or not.

“The thrust of the efforts of the establishment is to create the illusion of democracy rather than deal with the essence of democracy. Just look in your own back yard and you’ll figure out what I’m talking about.”
— Babak Payami
“It’s more bringing up the ballot box than Bringing Up Baby. On the other end of the spectrum is this iconic level where you have these icons. For example, a soldier. A gun. Justifying their existence by the notion of this unseen enemy.

“And then you have this naive idealist, and she thrives on change, and she wants to implement democracy. And in a way she stands for everything that the soldier stands against. Now despite all of that, because of the context and because of her naivete, she has to hide behind him and his gun and almost a fascist vehicle to get through to the people. This is the iconography in the film. And the meaning of everything — even all the numbers in the film have significance.

“It’s not a film with isolated sequences — an episodic road movie. Everything is intertwined into one another almost like a Persian kilim. It’s not a DuPont carpet with very fine lines and structured mathematical symmetric patterns. It’s more like the camelhair thread going through different colors and then suddenly you realize there’s a relationship between the different elements.

How Come We Never See an Iranian Romance?

“There is no explicit romance the way you would like to see, but there is implicit romance the way it happens in those societies where people cannot publically... I mean, it’s a combination of internal inhibitions as a result of family upbringing and religious influence and all of that, and also external inhibitions imposed upon people by society and by government indoctrination because of the religious influence on the government structure in countries like Iran.

“You are likely to be questioned by certain agents if you are walking with a girl on the street. They ask you what is your relationship and if you don’t [have one], there is [a] potential problem. So in the society like that, this is the way romance is. The way I indicate to you that I love you dearly is by not looking at you at all.

“If you look at the last sequence in Secret Ballot. There’s always this inhibition. The fact that it clicked with you and somehow bothered you is not because there is an inherent flaw within the dramatic structure or the romantic structure, it’s because it’s making a point to you that this is the way things are in those societies.”

Foot in the Door

“I made my first film One More Day. I haven’t lived in Iran for most of my life. We left when I was six or seven years old, [made a] very small incursion back in Iran after the revolution, and then I’ve lived in Canada for the rest of the time. Suddenly in ‘98, sort of in pursuing my film career in Canada I felt, ‘damn, I haven’t gone back to Iran all this time.’ And for the first time I felt like I could afford a two-week vacation, barely.

“So I go back to Iran — going back after such a long time for someone who hasn’t lived there for most of his life it’s somewhat of a reverse culture shock, a rediscovery of where I come from — and what happened is my father had a car that was stolen the year before. That car was recovered by the police and returned to him. But somehow the police computers did not indicate that this car was recovered, so my father and I were driving to town — he lives about 50 km outside of Teheran — we’re driving back to town in his car, and we get arrested by the highway patrol because the car is a stolen car. So they take us downtown, deep downtown, in the oldest district of Teheran, and they confiscate the car.

“Obviously, my father wouldn’t be able to leave me there and go fetch the papers so he gave me directions to go fetch papers.

“So I go out, busy downtown old neighborhood. Go out of the police station — huge, it’s like the central police headquarters of Teheran, it’s like a place you walk for 10 minutes before you get to the entrance — and I wait for the bus and I get on the bus and I realize that the bus has a metal rod separating men and women.

“Filmmaking is a very difficult, almost impossible task. And I think filmmaking in general, especially independent filmmaking, is an impossible endeavor that is made possible by persistent and hardheaded characters who are if not completely, at least borderline, insane.”
— Babak Payami
“I look at this woman getting on from the back, and a man... and I realize a couple, who are obviously not married, and not related, but somehow have a connection. They come on and get on from the opposite [ends], and both of them hold on to this metal rod, with their hands very close, and they spend some time doing nothing, but obviously there was a lot going on between them. And by the time we got to where I had to get off, I had to follow them, so I follow them for 40 minutes after they get off. And that was my first film, One More Day.

“So I decided to stay in Iran and make that film, I was so intrigued by this whole... context of sexual repression, and this frowning upon the relationship between the sexes. I said ‘I gotta make this film.’ I abandoned my activities to get my foot in the door in Canada, and I started banging my head against the wall to do it there, and again it was an impossibility for someone who doesn’t even have a professional standing in Iran. And lo and behold, within two months of September, when I went back to Iran in 1998 I started shooting the thing. It was premiered in the year 2000 in the Berlin film festival.”

Payami’s second film, Secret Ballot, has its Colorado premiere this Friday, September 6, 2002, at the Chez Artiste. Check Movie Habit for reviews and showtimes.