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Tradition and modernity
Characters in Payami's film represent extreme poles of our schizophrenic collective self

By Ataollah Togha
October 8, 2002
The Iranian

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 heritage.

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 Payami's movie.

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 short film.

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 running!

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...



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