A Satire on Voting in Iran

Iranian Film, Secret Ballot, Reveals an Imperfect Election Process

At the start of the 2001 Iranian film Secret Ballot (Raye Makhfi), elements of the story miraculously come together to fulfill a mission by orders of the government . First, a box containing ballots, a list of candidates and instructions for voting falls from the sky. It lands on the shore of a remote island where an armed border patrol officer just happens to be stationed. Moments later, an unnamed female Election Agent arrives by boat and declares it Election Day. Together, the three (Agent, Officer and Ballot Box) embark on a journey through the dusty desert to collect votes. As we ride along with them, Iranian filmmaker Babak Payami takes us from a simple civics lesson into the realm of the absurd.
Payam Films
Babak Payami's film, Secret Ballot traveled the film festival circuit in 2001 and has won awards at festivals including London, Newport, Rotterdam, São Paulo, Valladolid, Spain and Venice. View Larger >


Payam Films
The Election Agent, played by actress Nassim Abdi, is determined to collect every single vote. View Larger >

The female Election Agent waltzes from citizen to citizen to the tune "Everyone can vote. No one has to vote but it's better if they do." And why? Because, as she confidently points out, "The voting process helps countries improve." And her conviction that the process is, in fact, that simple and effective is convincing at first. But as the film progresses, she seems to speak from theory rather than practice as each absurd interaction presents a new problem with the voting process.

At the start of the day, the Border Patrol Officer refuses to follow the Election Agent's orders because she is a woman. She must chase her first voter down in an army jeep. Intimidated by the officer, the voter pleas for a secret ballot.

In another scene, a group of women who have never voted, worry about voting without their husbands' permission. One woman, accompanied by her young daughter, confronts the Election Agent about the unfair voting age restriction, declaring: "This girl can marry at 12, but not vote?"

Each encounter unveils a population unconvinced that voting will help them. Many of the citizens she encounters don't speak Farsi and thus, cannot read the ballots--a testament that these citizens are disenfranchised and the system is exclusive. One group of citizens travels far to cast their votes only to find that their candidates are not on the ballot.

Later, the Election Agent encounters a group of men at a funeral but is unable to collect their votes because women are prohibited from the cemetery. The young widow hides behind the trees to witness her husband's funeral. She scolds the Agent, "Your ballots mean more to you than people. What do you know about us and our problems? We don't even have the right to be here."

History of Women's Right's in Iran

Iranian women gained the right to vote in 1963. Throughout the 70's women continued to gain status as numerous equal rights laws were passed. But women's rights have been regressing ever since the revolutionary government of Ayatolla Khomeini came to power in 1979. In his ten years of leadership, Khomeini established a theocratic rule over Iran. He repealed all equal rights laws, enforced a dress code for women, shut down women's organizations and eliminated women from all decision-making positions within the government.

Given this historical backdrop, Payami's film and cast of characters are a contrast to what has been going on in Iran for many years. Democracy, progress and reform are literally embodied by the female ingénue. The Election Agent is a stark contrast to the Iranian residents she encounters on the island. She is an independent, educated, forthright and persistent government official assigned to the task of carrying out democracy on Election Day. In contrast, the residents are a multicultural population with different customs--many are illiterate, disenfranchised and apolitical.

An Imperfect System

On the one hand, the film is a testament to the importance for people to vote. On the other, the film encourages an understanding that those who have set up the voting process have failed to take into account the economic, social and cultural realities of Iranians' lives. The Election Agent promises her citizens that voting will help improve their lives, a message which by mid-film rings repetitive, naïve and even insensitive.

Payami turns a simple tale about an election into an examination of the challenges of bringing democracy to a theocratic country like Iran. In an interview with Film Freak Central, Payami explains his motivations for the film:

In a way, the film portrays the absurdity of the indoctrination that means nothing to people. On the one hand, it's important to make laws and rules and establishment to serve the people, but on the other hand you realize that so often it's really not effective...The film doesn't seek to undermine the merit of the democratic process, nor does it seek to undermine the integrity of society at large. The film is intended as a study of the problematic of the integration process.

By the final scene, the Election Agent understands that democracy is imperfect. But her faith in the civic process carries on. In the final scene, she carries the ballot box away to count the votes she's collected--a moment that declares democracy, as embodied by her character, will persist, even if it's imperfect.

Secret Ballot is a 100-minute-dose of skepticism mixed with idealism, leaving viewers wondering: Can the election custom alone make Iran a democratic country?

More information about Secret Ballot is available on Payam Films website. To view the trailer click here. To view the film, check the title at your local library or video store.

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