It's All Farsi To Me

"Secret Ballot," a new comedy now playing in better multiplexes, is a breezily entertaining road movie about the most abused word in the dictionary. The term in question is "democracy." Or, in Farsi,
.

Wait, you don't read Farsi? Those characters might as well be from the console of some alien spaceship? Or a Florida ballot line? If you are like most Americans, you are as uncomprehending as I am of those little black markings, the preferred written medium of some 50 million literate Iranians. Perhaps more linguistically versatile readers can assure me that the above translation, provided by "the first online Farsi dictionary," www.farsidic.com, doesn't actually mean "I am a jelly donut."

But if it does, it would only serve to underscore my point, which is that America fundamentally does not get Iran. It may surprise the average moviegoer that one third of the Axis of Evil is also a limited democracy, with a popular reformist president and legislature bravely determined to peacefully sideline the clique of mullahs who still hold the real power. (This pseudo-democratic arrangement, incidentally, is rather like any number of U.S. allies in the "developing world," such as Turkey, which has generals behind the scenes instead of religious leaders. Except that Turkey has been much nastier to its Kurdish minority.) Iran's 2000 election -- and, without a doubt, Florida's -- is the context for "Secret Ballot," which unfolds on a remote island in the Persian Gulf far removed from the drama of mainland politics.

In the opening shot -- the first of many surreal touches -- a large wooden box parachutes from a military plane. We later learn that it's Election Day in Iran, and the box contains another box, this one for holding ballots. A female polling agent, a wide-eyed idealist sent to collect the locals' votes, washes up on shore next to the military barracks -- not much more than a bunk bed on the beach -- and announces to the soldier on duty that he has orders to escort her around the island. Areas as rural as this have no polling places, the chador-clad agent explains, so here the government must send election officials door-to-door.

And so begins the journey of a truly strange cinematic odd couple, tooling around in an open jeep trying to cajole the natives to exercise their rights. The skeptical soldier, rifle at the ready, chafes at the assignment and unthinkingly scares people away -- "I want to vote, but not at gunpoint," says one frightened citizen -- but the earnest woman, vainly trying to explain the virtues of democracy to fishermen, herdsmen and their standoffish wives, can't seem to get anyone's attention without him. It's tempting to call both of these characters personifications of the divided Iranian government -- he of the grim old guard, she of the younger, modernizing reformers.

That's not exactly the case -- thankfully, "Secret Ballot" avoids schematic allegory in favor of a more ambiguous humanism -- but in any event, the locals have no use for either of these people. Entreaties to fill out ballots are met with perplexed stares -- who ever heard of a woman polling officer? -- or polite offers of food. One busy fisherman shrugs, "Voting doesn't catch fish." A flock of veiled wives complain that they can get married at 12 but must wait until 16 to vote. After getting the brush-off at a populous and rambling estate headed by an ancient matriarch, the agent concedes that "Granny Baghoo has her own government here. She doesn't need representatives."

Indeed, the deep well of absurdity that makes "Secret Ballot" so good is the fundamental disconnect between the election and reality; it provides the engine for the laughs and the occasion for one surrealist gag after another. We reach a nearly Buñuelian climax when the jeep stops at a red light, in the middle of nowhere, that obviously has no reason for existing at all. On the darker side of the same surreal coin, the polling agent, at wits' end, tries to crash a funeral in hopes of collecting the mourners' votes. When she's coldly ignored at the cemetery, which is off-limits to women, her heartbroken expression -- the emotional nadir of the journey -- practically carries the film by itself.

Moments like these reveal that "Secret Ballot" cares deeply about the human beings democracy is supposed to serve -- not the other way around, the all too common pitfall of "political" movies. On this island, where the law is pointedly irrelevant and communication next to impossible, the ballots might as well be in Greek -- or English. (Even Farsi isn't good enough for some of the islanders who happen to speak Arabic.) Director Babak Payami, with his long takes, deadpan wit and knack for capturing cultural collision, finds a kindred spirit in filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Jacques Tati, whose deceptively low-key comedies also understand that our biggest problem is that we talk too much. "Secret Ballot" is a reminder that political debates, as surely in Iran as in America, are often much more one-sided than we think.

Joe Knowles can be reached at knowles@inthesetimes.com.

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