INTERVIEW: Mid-East Meets West; Babak Payami Casts Global "Secret Ballot"
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE: 08.12.02) — Add Babak Payami to your list of internationally recognized Iranian auteurs. But unlike cinematic giants Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Payami spent a large portion of his life — almost two decades — in the West. He studied cinema at the University of Toronto in the early ’90s, and only returned to his country of origin in 1998. The reason: to make a film, of course, and subsequently join the next wave of artful and insightful filmmakers from the region. His debut “One More Day” — about a prisoner who receives momentary leave each day — screened at Berlin in 2000 and received prizes at the Turin and Tokyo film festivals.
With his second film, “Secret Ballot” (which opened Friday), Payami solidifies his reputation as an important new director. About a savvy young woman and gruff local soldier trying to gather votes on a remote island, the movie is billed somewhat as Iranian Cinema Lite. But don’t be misled: “Secret Ballot” is accessible road movie, distinct social commentary, and poetic cinema all rolled into one. The 36-year-old Payami recently spoke with Anthony Kaufman about global identity, long shots, and how a film is like a Persian rug.
indieWIRE: It seems to me that you are an international filmmaker. I don’t know if you’d agree with me, but I think that your filmmaking career seems to imply that it’s really a global activity nowadays.
Babak Payami: I like to hear that. I would like to consider myself an international filmmaker who has made two Iranian films. I’ve been living in different countries since my early childhood and through the years, I’ve developed a keen sense of identity that was influenced by my upbringing in different places as well as a deep appreciation for my heritage. But what is important is, as a result of those experiences, one tends to portray things in a way that they will have more global relevance. A potential misreading of Iranian films is the fact that audiences tend to view those films as a window to that society. And sometimes those films contribute to that sense, because they don’t take a more global view of things, but sometimes, Iranian films have very universal views portrayed in them. And I feel that we tend to be talking more about the global village than acting on it, and this is something that filmmakers can contribute to.
iW: Which aspects of “Secret Ballot” are Iranian and which are more global?
Payami: Iranian cinema is deeply rooted in Iranian poetry, especially Iranian modern poetry. It’s very much influenced stylistically and its sense of narrative and literary syntax. Even so overtly, some of the Iranian films were after Iranian poems. Even some of the imagery overtly refers to certain modern poems. In a way, we can assume that Iranian films have gone from a realistic, expressionist style towards a more naturalistic, impressionist style. Although one is always stepping on the shoulders of the previous generation, I hope that I’ve contributed to an attempt to flip the page and take the Iranian cinema into another direction, while still maintaining the stylistics aspects that make Iranian cinema what it is.
iW: In terms of your Western upbringing, how does that influence your films?
Payami: I can’t be self-conscious about that. This is an assessment that an outsider can make. I don’t set out to make a film that is different or the same as other Iranian films.
iW: There is a specific choice you made with the music? It has both Iranian and Western influences.
Payami: I didn’t want to make the film ethnically specific to limit the film’s universality. And I had to follow that same strategy with the music. So I couldn’t use specific Iranian ethnic music. The one obvious choice would have been to go with what is known internationally as world music, which is a blending of these tones. However, that wouldn’t have worked either, because of the style of the film. I was fortunate enough to come into contact with Michael Galasso, who is an American musician from Louisiana. He had been to Iran and he had studied Iranian music very carefully and he understands the Iranian style. His specialty being the violin, and the violin was introduced to Iranian music just over a hundred years ago. So he developed a very keen sense of the Iranian key, which is a different way of tuning the violin. So he took those melodies and filtered it through his own understanding, without trying to copy Iranian music. Therefore, he had a very good cultural understanding of the film, and we discussed the instruments and the moods in the film and came up with this unique music that we created for the film.
iW: One of the things I liked about the movie — and I think it plays into this globalized idea — is when you realize that there are different communities on this island. Not all of the people speak Farsi. So, especially from an outsider’s point of view, you think everyone is going to be homogenous and then you see it’s more complicated than that.
Payami: And that’s especially the case with Iran, which is founded on a multicultural and multinational makeup, from the outset. Even now in Iran, you travel 200-300 miles in any direction and you’ll find completely different languages and different customs.
iW: There was one particular long shot that I thought was interesting, where the characters go on a boat and it’s shot in one long take from so far away that you barely see what’s happening. Why did you choose to shoot that way?
Payami: There are several reasons. One: that scene is about the military establishment that always has everything under control. And if you go into a close-up, the scene is subject to why is someone from the Navy, why is he black, why is he talking in this dialect? You will lose the broad perspective of the main issue of that scene, which is this totalitarian system that comes in with this big noise and arrests somebody and takes them away. It’s also because of my own approach to violence. I’m not against showing violence, but I feel you should only show violence when you have to. In this case, I didn’t have to. From a stylistic standpoint, as far as the film’s structure, that scene allows for the audience to contribute and participate in the flow of the film. It also sets the groundwork for what happens in the following scenes, allowing for reflection on what you’ve seen before.
The film is in some way structured like a Persian rug. There are isolated, woven patterns, but they all resonate with one another. Sometimes, you need that empty space — that solid color — but you’ll see later how that pattern makes sense in a broader view. You have to step farther back from it to get the broader picture.
iW: You have said that the long shots don’t alienate the viewer, but give them more to think about and enter what they’re seeing.
Payami: And increase their sensitivity toward detail and their sense of time, which could be abhorrent or disproportionate, given the rapid montage that we’re used to seeing in other kinds of films.
iW: Do you think the close-up is lazy?
Payami: This film is about alienation, about the distances, about the problems of the integration process, the lack of understanding and communication and isolation. That’s why fundamentally the film is based on the long shot, the broad view; that’s why the only time we get close is when we’re dealing with the emotional relationship between the girl and the soldier. It’s not that I have something against the close-up; it’s more about the stylistic cohesion of the film.
iW: In this question of broadness vs. specificity, the dialogue sometimes feels very symbolic. Like you have this line, “This is the desert, law means nothing here.” With this overt statement, are you risking the subtlety of the film?
Payami: Obviously, in any piece of work one has certain crescendos. This is a major turning point in the film, so it’s not a matter of risking. The film, from the camera to the acting to the dialogue, is like waves of the sea; it goes on a low and becomes very subtle and then sometimes it has to bounce up the wave and close a certain point in the film. Especially in that scene, or the quarry scene where it’s very loud, it may go over the top, but again, if you look at the film as a whole, there are these waves from the beginning to the end.
iW: In the opening shot of the film, you used digital technology to show the ballot box falling from the plane. One doesn’t expect filmmakers in Iran using digital tools; is that a misconception?
Payami: They’re not available. We should be very blunt about this: production facilities in Iran are very limited and very primitive. In “Secret Ballot,” I had one camera, one tripod, four lenses and two reflectors and the crane didn’t work. I had to keep oiling the camera to keep it from making grinding noises. There are very limited resources. 90% of films in Iran are edited on flatbed machines from 20 years ago. Laboratories are facing a lot of limitations. But obviously, it’s not the technology that makes those films. It also doesn’t mean that Iranian filmmakers aren’t aware of these tools. And that they don’t use them. It just depends on how necessary it is. For me, it was a combination of me trying to create a cartoon-like image, this surreal look, but I couldn’t have gotten a military plane in Iran to drop something for me at exactly 6:18 in the morning. I would have been lucky to steal a shot from some aircraft, which I did, that’s passing by.
iW: Now that everyone’s shooting on digital, are you considering going that way for a feature?
Payami: Contrary to the popular hype that video is increasing in quality so much that it will replace film, I believe that it’s a completely different evolutionary branch of the audio-visual medium. They’re apples and oranges. And for me, I haven’t so far come up with any projects that necessitate the video medium, neither do I have such a deep command of that technology to do something feature length with video.