My Sweet Pepper Land: Cannes Review

My Sweet Pepper Land Cannes Un Certain Regard Still - H 2013
Festival de Cannes/PA

My Sweet Pepper Land Cannes Un Certain Regard Still - H 2013

Director Hiner Saleem's most successful attempt to depict the new Kurdistan with humor and imagination.

A schoolmarm, played by a luminous Golshifteh Farahani, and a sheriff stand tall against a band of villains in Kurdistan in director Hiner Saleem's Un Certain Regard entry.

Kurdistan may still be a loose geographical area, but Kurdish cinema has come into its own, thanks to top filmmakers like Bahman Ghobadi and Hiner Saleem. Saleem's Un Certain Regard entry, My Sweet Pepper Land, is his most accomplished attempt thus far, describing a historical moment in a way that communicates his fierce love for this remote region without veiling its grotesqueness. While the humorous elements of his previous work, such as If You Die, I'll Kill You, never quite came together, here the tone is pretty much over the top from start to finish, a delightful, poker-faced takeoff on the cowboy movie set on the Iraq-Turkish border. A luminous performance by Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani balances the Wild West humor, adding a note of serious appreciation for the plucky Kurdish women who refuse to bow their heads. Saleem should expand his fan club with this quirky title.

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Steely-eyed Baran (Korkmaz Arslan) is a hero in the war for Kurdish independence, but now that Saddam Hussein has fallen and it's peacetime, he finds himself at odds with his job as police chief in the capital city. After watching the absurdly botched hanging of a weeping murderer (the film's dark opening gag), he stalks off in disgust to turn in his badge. Instead he agrees to be stationed in a lawless border town, the location of drug and arms trafficking through the mountain passes.

It's the same two-phone village where Govend (Farahani) has started teaching kids to read and write. Against the wishes of her 12 goofy brothers, but with her father's consent, she courageously lives alone in the village, sleeping in the schoolhouse. After being locked out one night, she takes refuge in the police station, giving rise to a lot of nasty gossip about her and Baran from the conservative townsfolk.

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But romance is slow to develop. Baran has already appeared allergic to marriage, and his treatment of the dazzling schoolteacher is chivalrous and discreetly distant. Think John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn in Rooster Cogburn, more or less. Their mutual enemy is the local chieftan Aziz Aga (Tarik Akreyi), whose band of desperados smuggle alcohol into Iran and arms into Iraq. (There is a guerilla war with Turkey going on.) They have eliminated all the previous police chiefs who stood in their way, but Baran stares them down contemptuously, insisting he will uphold the law. His local sidekick (Suat Usta) thinks he's crazy, but he doesn't reckon with his boss' ruthlessness and determination. 

Walking the line between drama and farce, Saleem is usually as sure-footed as the rugged horses that scale breathtaking hills and dales, stunningly shot in glorious color by DP Pascal Auffray. One can feel the endless sky and mountains almost as Kurdistan's soul. There's also plenty joyful music, funny people and laughter to lighten the cruelty of the bandits and the band of young women who are surprisingly present as Turkish women freedom fighters.

In the main role, Arslan exudes the aura of an invincible hero with no weak spots, his squint recalling Western stars of yore. His best joke is his answer to Govend's query about his favorite music, to which he replies "Elvis, Bach and Mozart." Country western tracks are always bizarrely blaring from the police station, however. Farahani lights up the screen with cheerful determination. Natural without being dull, she wears a chic colbacco fur hat in place of a head scarf and plays a soulful metal drum with conviction.

The title refers to the town bar a.k.a. the town saloon, called Pepper Land.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 22, 2013.

A Memento Films release of an Agat Films & Cie, HS Production, Roh Films, Arte France, Chaocorp coproduction

Cast: Golshifteh Farahani, Korkmaz Arslan, Suat Usta, Mir Murad Bedirxan, Fayyaz Doman, Tarik Akreyi
Director: Hiner Saleem
Screenwriter: Hiner Saleem, Antoine Lacomblez

Producers: Marc Bordure, Benny Drechsel, Robert Guediguian
Director of photography: Pascal Auffray
Production designer: Fehmi Salim

Editors: Sophie Reine, Clemence Samson, Juliette Haubois
Sales Agent: Mercure International
90 minutes.