Resident film critic Rini Cobbey, associate professor of communication arts, continues her series of reviews for the “Elections and Presidents” Faculty Film Series.

Waiting for the Vote: Secret Ballot

By Rini Cobbey

This whole democracy business can get a little absurd . . . frustrating . . . bureaucratic . . . quixotic . . . but as Prof. Paul Brink noted Monday, Oct. 8 at a Faculty Film Series screening of the 2001 Iranian film Secret Ballot, it beats the alternatives.

Secret Ballot is the second feature film of Iranian Canadian filmmaker Babak Payami. It portrays a day in the life of an election agent collecting votes on a remote Iranian island, accompanied by her assigned military escort. Not unlike in our own culture, some players in this story are eager to participate in the electoral process, some actively resist. Some are informed; most are not. There’s idealism and apathy, progress and, yet, more of the same stuff conserved.

After arriving by boat first thing in the morning, the agent and her army companion roam around the island he’s assigned to guard, in an unreliable old jeep with a map that rarely proves relevant. One of the pair’s first encounters is with a man who runs away from the approaching jeep, and so they take up the chase. Here is a man, and here is the visiting agent. It’s election day. His vote must be collected! Jeep wins out over feet in a chase, and after the man catches his breath and there’s a requisite (!) exchange over why he ran – and why they chased, in an army vehicle, with a gun – he offers his identification card, the agent provides instructions, and his vote is deposited in the ballot box that arrived, that morning, by parachute from a passing plane. He walks away. They drive on, eyes peeled for more people to enfranchise.

This ridiculous scene is laugh out loud funny, and it resonates beyond the (in this film, relatively non-specific) Iranian political context.

Our election agent is idealistic, even propagandistic at first. “I must vote. You must vote. We all must vote,” she begins, in an effort to persuade her initially resistant government companion. (First, she’s a woman. No one told him agents could be female! Second, his i.d. is under the mattress his army partner’s sleeping on, so if he votes at all it will have to be later, because he can’t be bothered to walk over and wake him up.) Over the course of the day as she meets various citizens and non-citizens who challenge her early assumptions that the task is simple and its value inarguable, her enthusiasm wavers, but only slightly. “No one is forced to vote. But it’s better for them if they do,” her argument evolves.

They attempt to facilitate the voting experience of a truck full of heavily veiled, illiterate women, an engineer who wants to vote for God Almighty, a misinformed but highly opinionated group, and a community the agent ultimately concedes doesn’t really need to vote: they have governance enough inside their compound.

The surprising familiarity and humor of Secret Ballot, in some ways so foreign to our situation and sensibilities, works through contrasts and tensions which create subtle comedy, reflecting the culture-particular and universal limitations as well as promises of democracy and the law. Gender roles are key, as well as power and justice, choice versus obligation, and modern civilization up against centuries-old traditions.

Aesthetically, the visual composition and pacing of Secret Ballot complement its political narrative. The film opens and closes with long, wide shots. A couple of them are held for over two minutes. We’re more familiar and comfortable with three second cuts (and the film includes a few of these, too, revealing the intentionality of the longer stretches). These long shots heighten the absurdity of the agent’s conceit in contrast with her social context. The situation, this civilization, resists dramatic change and pompous promises. An agent scurrying around to collect votes, confidently proclaiming the power of political representation and participation is silly and maybe impotent in the face of bureaucracy, ignorance, and even more so a sense of sufficiency in the present quotidian.

Secret Ballot doesn’t conclude that to vote is pointless or powerless, but it puts propaganda and modern energy and rhetoric in their place and tones them down. In the U.S., our elections fill with chaos and repetition, but Secret Ballot lets silence linger. Our election day (and season) is louder, so that we might miss the absurdity in the circus of it all. Secret Ballot subtly suggests the whole process can get a bit silly (as the agent almost literally leaves no stone unturned to get out the vote), yet we can’t help but be taken by a little of the idealism and vision anyway.