My Sweet Pepper Land

May 31, 2014
Golshifteh Farahani in 'My Sweet Pepper' (2013)
Golshifteh Farahani in 'My Sweet Pepper' (2013)

If you’ve ever wondered what sort of movies they’re making in Kurdistan nowadays, enlightenment is at hand. My Sweet Pepper Land, by Kurdish director, Hiner Saleem, is a dead ringer for those Hollywood westerns in which a new sheriff arrives in a violent frontier town, intent on restoring law and order. Needless to say, he is confronted with overwhelming odds in the shape of the local gang leader and his henchmen. It’s equally inevitable that he fall in love with the young, idealistic schoolmistress.

This blueprint was eagerly adopted by the makers of Spaghetti Westerns, so there’s no reason why another national cinema shouldn’t try it out. The western, after all, is not peculiar to the United States. It is a genre of universal application with existentialist overtones: alone in a Godless universe (or a lawless shanty town), a heroic individual strives to bring stablity to a chaotic environment. It’s an absurd, lonely quest for which the chief motivation seems to be an abstract idea of justice, quite at odds with any sense of self-preservation.

We love the heroes of these westerns because they reassure us that justice will always prevail over evil. Nick Xenophon is rapidly emerging as the sheriff of Australian politics. Geoffrey Watson QC is the man with the tin badge at the ICAC.

Baran (Korkmaz Arslan) is a former fighter in the battle for Kurdish independence, who has had to find a new job following the fall of Saddam Hussein. He is now a policeman, but decides to resign from the force after witnessing a botched hanging, which provides the bleakly comical opening to this film.

Returning home to his old mum, Baran finds that he’ll never be left in peace unless he marries one of the local girls. This sends him scurrying back to the police, but he wants no part in the gravy train of easy favours and corruption that characterises life in the capital. Instead, he is sent to a remote outpost on the border of Iraq and Turkey.

He soon finds that smuggling is rife and a local warlord, Aga Aziz (Tarik Akreyi), treats the town as his personal fiefdom. Baran is summoned to Aga Aziz’s home and offered protection, so long as he respects the established order. To the amazement of his deputy, Reber (Suat Usta), the new sheriff tells the kingpin he is here to uphold the law, and that is what he will do.

Arriving in the village at the same time is Govend (Golshifteh Farahani), a young schoolteacher who has convinced her father and twelve brothers to allow her to return to this wilderness, rather than stay home and marry. When she finds that the school has been locked and there is no room at the inn, Baran allows her to sleep at the police station, giving rise to rumours of immorality.

It’s obvious from the moment they meet, if not before, that these two refugees from unwanted matrimony are destined to fall for each other. The romance proceeds in a highly moral fashion, with neither party declaring their feelings. They are, however, a glamorous couple: Arslan has the steely good looks we associate with the young Clint Eastwood, while Farahani is one of the most admired of Iranian actresses, perhaps best known for her role in Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly (2009).

Farahani is also a controversial figure, being obliged to live in exile from Iran after briefly baring a breast in a promotional clip for the new French cinema. She has the kind of soulful, charismatic screen presence that makes her seem more artist than actor. Farahani trained as a musician, but declined the opportunity to study at the Vienna conservatorium. Throughout this film she plays on a local instrument called a hang drum, which has a surprisingly soft and melodious sound.

Although his story follows a familiar pattern, Saleem has many points to make about the backwardness and corruption of his native land, and the treatment of women. He goes to the slightly surreal extreme of introducing a group of female warriors fighting on behalf of Kurdish liberation in Turkey. The antagonism between these women and Aga Aziz’s thugs is also a battle of the sexes.

Although My Sweet Pepper Land seems to be heading towards a final confrontation in the manner of High Noon (1952), Saleem thwarts these expectations. Regardless of the violence, the entire film has a tongue-in-cheek quality, with the most dangerous scenarios teetering on the edge of comedy. From the moment we find Baran driving towards his new job with Elvis Presley’s You’re So Square blaring from his car stereo, we know this story is not destined to be a tragedy.

My Sweet Pepper Land
Directed by Hiner Saleem
Screenplay by Hiner Saleem & Antoine Lacombiez
Starring Korkmaz Arslan, Golshifteh Farahami, Suat Usta, Mir Murad Bedirxan, Feyyaz Duman, Tarik Akreyi, Veronique Wüthrich
France/Germany/Iraq, rated M, 95 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 31 May, 2014.