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January 11, 2007  (film review) Winner of several awards, including Best Director (Venice Film Festival), this 2001 film presents a delightful view into voting. With charm and comedy, director Babak Payami challenges our conceptions of the meaning and import of elections. 

Producers: Fabrica Cinema, Payam Films, and Sharm Shir
Director: Babak Payami
Subtitled, Run Time: 104 minutes

In a jeep, with an armed guard, a female election official scours an Iranian desert island for voters, collecting their votes in a cardboard ballot box. Her gender is an issue throughout the film, but she accomplishes her task.

Some islanders seek out the election official, complaining about missing the last election. They also complain about the choices on the current ballot. “We didn’t come all this way to vote for one of them!” In another scene where no one in a small village will vote, the official understands they don’t need to, that a certain matriarch serves her people far better than any politician could or would.

Her grumbling guard companion makes a few poignant points of his own. “What good are those votes? Those politicians you’re collecting votes for, they were plotting something here. They and all their projects disappeared.”

Many islanders refuse to vote, far more than who do. When she comes upon a solar energy station, the scientist tries to explain to her how the system works. She refuses to listen, insisting his secret ballot is more important than his work. He finally acquiesces, but only if he can vote for God.

She resorts to buying wares to procure the vote of one vendor, only to learn from his ID that he is not Iranian. She visits mourners at a cemetery, only to learn their religion forbids them to vote. She chases the vote of smugglers on the Persian Gulf, resulting in one being arrested and his wife having to be transported back to her village.

Her idealism is indefatigable, her respect for the political process untarnished. Until they come upon a traffic light in the desert, that is. The grumbling guard refuses to run a red light that will not change. Time constraints compel her to argue he must crash the light. She pleads with him that the law is meaningless out here, in the desert. “No one is out here! What good is the law?”

But that seems to be the point of the movie, charmingly told. The vote is meaningless to people whose austere lives are inconceivable to politicians. To most of them, the vote is a frivolity.

With election conditions in the US that leave no basis for confidence in results, this film is a must-see for election integrity activists. It challenges us to reconsider where our energies are best spent, and who our energies truly serve.