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" Corpsicle "
— Kathleen Quinlan, Event Horizon

MRQE Top Critic

The East

The East emerges as an exciting piece of filmmaking from the independent scene’s hott —Matt Anderson (review...)

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The last notable Iranian film to come through town was Kandahar, which garnered extra notice by taking place in Afghanistan (although it was filmed in Iran by an Iranian). Kandahar gave us a tour of life under the Taliban, life under the burqa, with our heroine, an Afghan-Canadian, trying to make her way from the Iranian border to the heart of Afghanistan to save her sister.

Secret Ballot, another Iranian film, has some parallels with Kandahar. It was suggested and financed by Kandahar’s director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Kandahar’s heroine and lead actress were Afghan-Canadian, and Secret Ballot’s director is Iranian-Canadian. Like Kandahar, Secret Ballot is a tour movie, a tour of life in the primitive backwaters of the fledgling democracy of Iran.

Rural Iranian Democracy

Waiting for the light to changeOur story follows two people: a soldier (Cyrus Ab) and an elections official (Nassim Abdi). The soldier is stationed on a desert island. He shares one gun and one bunk bed with another soldier, with whom he takes turns watching for smugglers.

The elections official arrives on this desolate island with orders for one of the soldiers to drive her through the barren white sands to collect votes. She is able to get votes from an unlikely assortment of characters — the lone man dressed in canvas loafers, khaki pants, and a fleece jacket, running through the desert; the man who brings a truckload of women with him, who wants to do their voting for them; the timid village of mud adobe that’s ruled over by a mysterious matriarch named Granny Baghoo.

Reasons Not to Vote

A question that keeps coming up is whether these civilians, who aren’t really part of the civilization of Iran, need or want any say in national politics. For instance, there’s the man working at the solar collector who refuses to vote for anyone but Almighty God. He says men can’t control fate, not even by voting and politics. Only God can do that.

Granny Baghoo’s people say they don’t need representation because they make their own power, make their own food, and take care of their own people. There is nothing the national government can do for her tribe that they don’t already do for themselves.

The elections official is frustrated by the apathy and folk logic of these rural Iranians. Why do they think democracy doesn’t affect them?

She gets her answer in the form of a metaphor. Driving around the rural island, the soldier and official come to a stoplight. There are miles of white sand dunes on all sides. They haven’t seen another human being for a long time. And here in the middle of nowhere, is a red stoplight. The soldier dutifully stops and waits. The official wants to run the absurd red light, but the soldier uses the official’s own words against her. Just because they are distant from the rest of Iranian society doesn’t mean they are exempt from the rules of society.

Two Sides to Every Story

Such a clear metaphor makes a good point and generates a laugh at the official’s expense. You might think Secret Ballot is taking sides. Perhaps it does take sides, but it takes turns taking sides.

Democracy is the victory of self-government over tyrrany, she says. But if so, he replies, why must a soldier provide an armed escort to the ballot box? Democracy lets the people decide who will control their fates. But what if the person you want to vote for is not on the approved list? What if you’ve never heard of anyone on the approved list?

If the stoplight serves as a grand metaphor for the soldier’s point of view, the movie ends with a symbol of the official’s point of view. It ends with a symbol of great respect for the value of the votes collected in the humble paper box. The film is both cynical and optimistic, choosing both sides, and doing so with an eye toward fairness.

Impressionist Roadblock

There is one roadblock, however, to a strong recommendation for Secret Ballot . Director Babak Payami uses a style that he aptly calls impressionism, and he draws a comparison between his own work and that of Antonioni.

Secret Ballot is filled with long takes, many as long as three and a half minutes, often from a stationary camera. One or two shots like this would have been interesting as a contrast to the action in the rest of the film. In fact, the tactic is effective at the beginning of the film, when the two soldiers, moving slowly, like lizards before the sun has warmed their blood, trade shifts.

But elsewhere the tactic is less effective. One scene of three boats together in the water is shot from a distance, presumably from shore. The action is so diminished by distance that even projected on a big screen, I was unable to tell what was going on. That’s three and a half minutes of confusion and boredom.

Payami is probably right in describing his own style. But I’ve never felt strongly about impressionism in art; it may be pretty, but it’s also bland. As for Antonioni, I still don’t feel like I “get” his L’Avventura, which deliberately disinvites your heart so that your brain can participate more fully.

For me, I’d like to see something more emotionally engaging, particularly at the movies. This style is just not my cup of tea.

But still, Secret Ballot is an interesting tour of rural Iran, particularly for armchair anthropologists. Add the food-for-thought on the topic of democracy and you start to have the makings of a good film. If you subtract my own aversion to impressionism and Antonioni, you probably have a recommendation.