|Tradition and modernity
Characters in Payami's film represent extreme poles of our schizophrenic collective
By Ataollah Togha
October 8, 2002
I.X.'s review of the movie Secret
Ballot is pretty amazing [So
boring, so pointless], in the sense that he has been able to write a fairly long
"review« lashing out at the movie and its director with such skillfulness and
without much repeating himself. For example, "pointless", "soulless",
"lifeless", "flavorless", "colorless", "meaningless",
"mindless", "aimless", "purposeless" and "useless"
are some of the adjectives he finds fit to describe the target of his review with.
Quite a rich vocabulary!
As for the use of the proper pronoun, I tend to think I.X. is male, because he finds
it important to make it known to the readers that he has been to a movie theater
not with just anybody, but with a "female friend", and, it seems, a rather
sleepy one. But what's the point of such bragging, I wonder, if you don't have the
guts to reveal your real name when you attack a powerless movie director?
Which makes me wonder if I.X. is Iranian. Since I can't think of any Persian word
starting with the letter X (True, I.X. can be the initials of a pseudonym!) I assume
he is not Iranian, in which case, I think it important to assure him that democracy,
believe it or not, IS a hot topic for Iranians.
Now if I.X. is indeed Iranian then I am not surprised at all by his totally one-sided
review of the movie. In fact, it is seeing a levelheaded review by a fellow Iranian
that would pleasantly surprise me. Sensible criticism, alas, seems to be an art beyond
our reach, a language we fail to master, something at odds with our rich cultural
In any case, I admire I.X. for taking time to explain why he thinks this movie is
worthless (another word ending with "less" he probably wish he had used
in his essay). In the area where I live there is a pretty good Persian publication
with a section for cinema. The gentleman in charge of this section often labels movies
by such absolute words like "good" and "bad", without finding
it necessary to convince the reader by offering a minimum of an argument why he thinks
this movie is "bad" and that movie has been "good".
Anyway, I.X. fails to recognize anything worthy of praise in Secret Ballot.
I, too, saw the movie and I agree that it was a bit of a drag. But this is nothing
new about many prize-winning Iranian movies. Some even claim that this very slowness
is part of the charm of such movies. These movies, one might suggest, provide a relaxing
experience; a sense of tranquility that counterbalances the effect of the fast-paced
sex-and-violence-loaded Hollywood productions.
I'm not sure if that is the case. Kiarostami's movies can be a drag, too, but he
makes going of the actors of his movies from point A to point B not only a way of
making the dialogues he wants us to listen to and ponder more attractive, but also
an excuse for showing the viewers the beautiful scenery in the background. He must
be in love with nature, an admirer of lonely trees sparsely standing in the middle
of meadows, and if you get bored by the long conversations in a truck or on a motorcycle
you can at least soothe your eyes. This element is unfortunately missing in Babak
But who knows! Maybe the first 10 minutes or so of Secret Ballot has been
made all the more boring for a reason. Maybe Payami wants us to share a small fraction
of the boring experience that a soldier endures every single day of his service.
After all, how better could one convey the boredom that the life of such men is filled
with? But that's pure speculation!
Let me digress a little bit here and say a few words about another aspect of some
Iranian productions: excessive repetition. One can't help thinking that by including
boringly long scenes as well as over-repeating similar scenes, the directors aim
at nothing but making a 90-minute movie out of a plot that better suits a 20-minute
Well, it does not have to be so. As counterintuitive as it may sound, even repetitiveness
could be inspiring sometimes. A brilliant example of this is found in Makhmalbaf's
Afghan Alphabet. A large part of this semi-documentary consists of scenes
showing Afghan children sitting on the floor in overcrowded, under-equipped classrooms
(if those rooms can be called so) repeating in unison, as loudly as they can, the
first two letters of the Persian alphabet: "A, B".
Unfortunately, the slick pun is missed in translation. That's how I see it: Afghan
people are doubly unfortunate. Drought stricken, they are as much in need of stepping
out of darkness of their ignorance, exacerbated by their illiteracy as they are in
need of water. (Note to non-Persian reader: The first two letters of Persian alphabet
put together make the word that means water in Persian-a mere coincidence that our
director puts to a very good use.)
The scene of children shouting "A, B" is shown over and over from different
angles, and exactly at the moment you start thinking that it's probably just a trick
for adding to the minutes of the film, the depth of the misery of Afghan nation sinks
in, finally, and you are awakened to a painful realization and the lump that is growing
in your throat makes it really hard for you to breathe.
But let's go back to Secret Ballot.
I'm certainly no movie expert, but I found some of the symbolism in the movie quite
interesting, even from the viewpoint of a layman. Payami's two main characters seem
to be the representatives of the extreme poles of our schizophrenic collective self,
which has been oscillating between, to put it rather broadly, Tradition and Modernity
for a long time now.
The soldier's concept of the law is, well, soldier-ly. He is used to viewing the
laws as mere commands that are beyond disputation and delievered by the authority
once and for all. The chador-clad girl, despite her traditional outfit, is there
to prove exactly the opposite: that people can and must have a say in the laws they
are governed by.
The symbolic meaning of stopping the car at the red light which is absurdly planted
in the middle of nowhere cannot be missed by any attentive viewer, or reviewer. My
favorite part, however, was when that old man who is using such modern technology
for making some good ol« traditional tea adamantly refuses to vote to anyone but
God. But all candidates happen to be mortal humans this time around. "God is
not a candidate," the girl informs the man. Apparently, He has no interest in
running for office anymore, or perhaps the authorities in Tehran have banned Him
From what I have read, Secret Ballot is only Payami's second movie, and although
some Iranian directors may be well aware of the truism implicit in the ending of
Woody Allen's Hollywood Ending (See the movie, if you haven't!), I think it
is too early to conclude that Payami makes his movies only for festivals. Let's give
the guy the benefit of the doubt.
Finally, what I always find disappointing about Persian movies that are screened
abroad is the poor quality of the English subtitles. They are not only sometimes
impossible to read, but are usually filled with misspellings and other embarrassing
errors. Even Secret Ballot which is directed by someone raised in an English-speaking
country was not immune from misspelled words. (I specifically remember "cemetery"
spelled wrong!) One can't help but wonder if those in charge of typing the subtitles
are even familiar with the idea of a spell-checker. In any case, they don't seem
to be fit for the job they have been trusted with, but then again...