Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Hiner Saleem
Stars: Korkmaz Arslan, Golshifteh Farahani, Tarik Akreyi, Suat Usta, Mir Murad Bedirxan, Feyyaz Duman.
Remember those old westerns in which a taciturn loner with a high moral sense of justice and right (something like the characters that Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne would often play) would ride into town and begin to rid it of corruption and villainous and powerful men, bringing law and order to the untamed frontier. That’s sort of what you get in My Sweet Pepper Land, a contemporary revisionist western, from Kurdistan of all places. The film is set in Kurdistan in 2003, when the country has just established itself as an independent country after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and this search for independence is one of the main themes running throughout.
The template is familiar, and the usual archetypes and staples of the western genre are present in the film. However, the setting itself is exotic and lends an air of mystery and otherworldliness to the material.
Baran (played by Korkmaz Arslan) is a former war hero who distinguished himself in the campaign against Saddam Hussein, who now works as a policeman trying to bring law and order to a country that is slowly trying to rebuild itself. Cynical and burnt out from his experiences in the war he is looking for a quiet life, but he finds he is not suited to life at home with an overbearing mother keen to see him married. He jumps at an opportunity when he is offered the job as top policeman in Qamarlan, a small and lawless one-horse town in the north of Kurdistan, on the border with Turkey and Iran, where smugglers operate with impunity. Not long after arriving, Baran butts heads with the local war lord, the avuncular Aga Aziz (Tarik Akreyi), who controls all the black market operations in the region.
A further complication arises in the presence of Govend (Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, from About Elly, etc), the local school teacher, who is both single and outspoken. She is trying to establish her own independence away from the overprotective gaze of her father and brothers. While the children love her, the men in the village want to get rid of her. The feisty Govend struggles against the outdated and entrenched patriarchal attitudes of the villagers. When she shows sympathy for a group of female rebels trying to smuggle much needed medical supplies across the border it signals trouble. Baran and Govend find themselves thrown together which adds further tension to a volatile situation.
My Sweet Pepper Land is the ninth feature from Kurdish director Hiner Saleem (Vodka Lemon, etc), but the first he has shot since Kurdistan achieved its independence. It follows many of his familiar themes – Kurdish identity, independence, the plight of refugees and immigrants, female empowerment, the process of recovering from the war – and also draws upon his own experiences. The Kurdish film industry is still finding its feet as the nation establishes its independence, and Saleem is working with limited resources and a meagre budget.
There is a strong streak of black humour, especially at the start when we witness a botched hanging that has us laughing uncomfortably. And visually, the film seems to have been inspired by the epic spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. The film has been beautifully shot by French cinematographer Pascal Auffray (Father Of My Children, etc), who brings the rugged settings and harsh landscapes to life. And the music score, much of which is played by Govend on her metal drum, is haunting and evocative.
Saleem draws sympathetic and strong performances from his two leads. Farahani, who brought such emotional depth to About Elly, has a strong presence as Govend who is fighting prejudice and entrenched attitudes, while Arslan also has a strong presence as the soft spoken but heroic sheriff.
Although it may seem a little slow paced at times, My Sweet Pepper Land gives us some nice insights into a way of life in this country that we know little about. The film takes its title from the small rudimentary saloon that the men in the village hang out in. My Sweet Pepper Land is a subversive modern day western that has a droll sense of humour, some gorgeous scenery and a couple of sympathetic performances from its leads, all of which adds up to a satisfying cinema experience.