MY SWEET PEPPER LAND (2013, Kurdistan, Iraq, France, Germany)
SUNDAY 19 April 10.00 am
TUESDAY 21 April 8.15 pm
RUNNING TIME 95 minutes
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, a former Kurdish war hero (Korkmaz Arslan) and now sheriff accepts a transfer to a border town between Iraq, Iran and Turkey. The valley is a haven for illegal trafficking, and Baran comes into conflict with the local tribal chief. But soon enough, he bonds with a newly arrived a female teacher, herself an outcast.
REVIEW BY PETER GALVIN
Superb revisionist western has real world implications.
My Sweet Pepper Land is about a kind of battle and begins just as another has ended. Saddam Hussein is gone. The movie’s hero is a Kurd called Baran (Korkmaz Arslan). He is tough, quiet, a little cynical, wears a hat and carries a gun, and likes to listen to Elvis Presley. When called upon to be bold, he can be counted on. He is a decorated war hero. But, like so many warriors, once the shooting stops, his career opportunities appear limited: he can join the new regime as a key player and get married or look for another right to wrong.
Baran doesn’t have much confidence in his comrades’ organisational abilities. They can’t even get an execution right. He leaves his role as an enforcer in disgust. Back home with his mother, Baran divides his time between toiling happily in the garden and submitting to interviews with potential wives, meetings arranged by his mum. With his face frozen in smiling terror, one thinks that Baran would rather face an enemy’s bullets than another afternoon tea with an eager bride wannabe.
So Baran elects to head for the frontier. He takes a gig as a sheriff in a remote outpost on the Iraqi-Turkish border. This is a place of near vertical hills and charcoal skies, a thing of wild beauty, accessible only by foot or horse. Baran’s destination is a town which has a bar – Pepper Land – a phone and, in a foreshadowing of trouble to come, a police station that needs a renovation job. Its main decorative feature is a wall of portraits of ex-police chiefs. Many of them, we understand, died on the job. Most likely they met their demise facing down the town warlord, a grey bearded avuncular character called Aziz Aga (Tarik Akreyi). He pretends to rule this territory with absolute moral authority. But the large automatic weapons and his small army of bandits – and their vile swagger – tell a different story.
Aziz Aga controls the traffic of arms, alcohol and black market goods in the hills of the borderlands – that place where Turkey, Iraq and Iran intersect – and he’s not the kind of fellow who has a sense of humour about anyone interfering with his trade: not the young women guerillas who fight the Turks and use the hills as a refuge and a battleground; nor any stranger in town unwilling to play a game of compromise. Still, Baran is not entirely alone. He has an ally in Govend (Golshifteh Farahani). She is 26, an unmarried beauty who has defied her dozen brothers to come to the village to teach its children to read and write. Tough and smart, Govend, like Baran, gets the locals offside. As their romance blossoms, a show down with the bad guys becomes inevitable.
Hiner Saleem’s My Sweet Pepper Land appeared in Cannes in Un Certain Regard last May and a lot was made in the trades at the time about how it’s a kind of western, perhaps the first ever produced in Kurdistan. Well, yes and no. True, the film abounds with the familiar tropes and images of the western film. Any summary of the plot demonstrates that Hiner Saleem and co-writer Antoine Lacomblez know their genre. Strip away the specifics of time and place and the action has the classic outlines of the 'bad town’ western film, with Baran in the role as the rebellious but civilising agent whose authority is based on a clearly defined sense of human decency and natural justice. But this isn’t a Tarantino-esque genre fan boy frolic. It might have the shape of a western but I don’t think the point is genre satire and/or celebration. What gives the style depth and intrigue is Saleem has introduced a bit of genre revisionism without adopting a smug tone of ironic distance. His use of the western is sophisticated; he’s made a film about the real world with real stakes and he’s done it in the form of a pop fable. Banditry, sectarian conflict and internecine warfare aren’t just props in a plot here; the cost they yield in human life is deeply felt. To talk of the ending would be a spoiler. But let’s just say Baran and Govend aren’t as alone in their stance as their 'western’ antecedents might have been. Here, heroism isn’t just about rugged individualism; it’s a thing of shared values and a matter of principle.
The acting is fine and the cinematography by Pascal Auffray coats everything in a lovely bleakness. Even most of the gags have an off-hand lived-in feel that isn’t so much absurd or quirky but merely daft. I loved the bit where Baran is barrelling down some remote highway with Elvis blasting on the car stereo, a little smile of contentment on his face. 'Baby, I Don’t Care’, from Jailhouse Rock, will never be quite the same for me again. But even in a story busy with action, Saleem takes time out to just spend an intimate moment with the key characters; like when we watch Govend sit in the hills above the town playing her metal drum, its cascade of notes the only soundtrack to her Mona Lisa smile.
My Sweet Pepper Land has its own peculiar mystique that’s very hard to capture in print. Still, here goes: imagine something that looks like a documentary, with some brutal action scenes, a lot of dry comedy and a plot that just keeps coming. I don’t think there’s one scene here that isn’t a tad eccentric, which could be the director’s way of asserting a bit of ironic and subversive commentary. In this world of strict social and religious codes, there’s little order and any attempt to impose it is seen – wrongly as it happens – as some dark, crazy force.