Sometimes a great film isn't necessarily about production values, or a good screenwriter, or brilliant performances. Sometimes it's about the long shot, the static pose from a distance. Iranian director Babak Payami, in his second feature, Raye Makhfi (Secret Ballot), manages to capture the essence of his subject with these long shots, in fact relies on them to make his point with only little nudges of help from the minimalist script and admittedly amateur actors.
Secret Ballot is ostensibly the story of an election official during Iran's presidential election. Known to the viewer only as "Girl," this woman of authority is sent to a remote island to collect the votes of the citizens there, and escorted by a soldier to ensure her protection. As the film opens, we see from a distance a rocky coastline, and a double bunk, exposed to the elements. Two soldiers, one sleeping until the other wakes him, stand guard on this rocky shore. The exchange between the soldiers, regarding the arrival of a crate containing their orders and news of their guest, is immediately indicative of Payami's style throughout, blending tight shots and long views during the minimal and, if it's not too trite, organic dialogue. As the soldiers finish their exchange, a boat arrives, and a young woman, the election official, clambers ashore.
It is the interaction between the soldier assigned to guard her and the young woman that makes the film what it is. While both the actors (Nassim Abdi as The Girl and Cyrus Abidi as the Soldier) are obviously amateurs, their performances are very natural, and more importantly, very relatable. Payami, somehow, manages to make these nameless characters very real from the beginning. Much of this stems from their initial antagonism toward each other. The soldier, resentful and sullen, balks at the girl's orders. For her part, the girl is unwilling to take his insubordination, and berates him until he follows her instructions. From the outset, Payami makes it abundantly clear; these two are from entirely different worlds.
As the pair set out into the desert, this difference is reinforced by their first encounter with a potential voter. As the two are driving along the desert road, a man, seeing their army jeep, begins to run. The soldier, convinced he is a smuggler, begins to chase him in the jeep, ignoring the protests of his companion. After finally getting the man to stop with a shot in the air from his rifle, the girl explains to the terrified man that they merely want him to vote in the election. He refuses until the soldier puts his gun away, stating that he will not vote at gunpoint. After convincing her protector that the man is not a smuggler, the girl gets the man to vote and the two move on, after a brief exchange between them regarding their difference of approach.
These differences are exemplified in the most beautifully worked scene in the film. Driving through the empty desert, the pair encounter a traffic light at an intersection in the middle of nowhere. The soldier stops, waiting for the light to change. After a few moments, the girl urges him to run it, as they must return to the soldier's camp by the end of the day. To illustrate her point, the girl exits the jeep, and wandering around in the desolate intersection, exhorts the soldier again, telling him that in the desert, the rules don't matter. In one of the few, and most striking close shots of the film, the soldier considers for a moment, and says to the girl, "You have wandered all day long for the law. And look at you now ... you want to break the law yourself?" "What rules?" she queries. "This is the desert. This thing shouldn't even be here. It's a mistake!" After another long moment, the soldier revs up the jeep and passes through the light. When the girl asks him why he changed his mind, he reveals that he thought the light had been fixed, but it was obviously still broken.
It's in his longing attention to these differences that Payami makes his film's true point. In a series of similar vignettes, the unlikely pair explore not only the differences between themselves, but between the worlds in which they live. Their encounter with a camp of people who will not vote because they have no interest in any leadership but that of the woman who keeps them safe, Granny Bahgoo, their meeting with a group of women brought from their village to vote according to their husbands' wishes in spite of some of their ages, and a myriad of other interactions begin to bridge the gap between the idealistic city girl and the taciturn, solitary soldier.
As the pair arrive at the soldier's camp at the end of the day, the girl begins to pack her things away when the soldier quietly hands his identification to her. Realizing she hasn't taken his vote, she unpacks the ballots and hands him one. As he hands it back, she is stunned to see he has voted for her. Asking why he has done this, when he knows the process, he simply says, "But I only know you."
The film is not without its issues, to be sure. The pacing is stuttery at best, and at times too slow. But while it's not a perfect film, it accomplishes its goal. In a series of genuinely funny, touching moments, the pair illustrates the joining of two very different worlds with a stark, simple beauty. Though many would focus on the social issues inherent in a subject such as this, Payami chooses to make social commentary a secondary function of the film, taking a backseat to the idea that people, regardless of their background or station in life, can connect, even in the strangest of circumstances.
Henry Britt is a writer from Houston who likes coffee and laughing at the misfortunes of others, in that order. You can email him or leave a comment below.