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By Tom Clift
May 19, 2014
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My Sweet Pepper Land

An old-school American Western is infused with a distinctively Kurdish feel.
By Tom Clift
May 19, 2014
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Director Hiner Saleem takes the trappings of an old-school American Western, and infuses them with a distinctively Kurdish feel, in the Cannes selected drama My Sweet Pepper Land. Set in a remote village in Iraqi-Kurdistan near the borders of both Turkey and Iran, the film offers an intriguing new spin on the time-honoured genre — one that works in parallel to its examination of life after the fall of Saddam.

The stoic Korkmaz Arslan plays our protagonist, Barlan. Once a high-ranking officer in the Kurdish resistance, the liberation he helped bring about has, ironically, left him at a loss. Ill-suited to his position in the new government, and eager to leave the home of a mother who wishes to see him married, Barlan takes a position as sheriff in an isolated mountain town, in the hope that he can maintain the newly established rule of law.

It's a classic set-up that wouldn't feel at all out of place in a John Ford movie. Upon arrival in town, Barlan is quick to draw the ire of the local warlord Aziz Aga (Tarik Akreyi), who wishes to continue his smuggling operations with impunity. Barlan's cautiously loyal deputy (a moustachioed Suat Usta) warns his boss against a fight he cannot win. For the fiercely principled soldier, however, retreat is not an option.

Saleem, best known for the award-winning Vodka Lemon, embraces the tropes of the Western genre, fostering a pleasing familiarity in a world that is otherwise foreign. The destruction of the one bridge into town means that everyone travels by horseback, while the local saloon, from which the movie takes its name, houses a posse of villainous henchmen.

But Saleem also subverts expectations, both cinematic and cultural. Actress Golshifteh Farahani plays Govend, the local schoolteacher who, like Barlan, finds herself at odds with Aziz Aga — in her case because she's a smart, independent woman who refuses to cower in the face of intimidation. Scenes shared with her 12 overprotective brothers are played as humorous, until you realise that they too expect her to fall in line with male authority. Farahani, for her part, is no stranger to patriarchal attitudes, having been barred from her native Iran after posing nude in a magazine shoot in Paris.

The overcast skies and grey-green hills of rural Kurdistan are a far cry from the scorched reds and yellows of the Old West, yet the two landscapes share a similar, inhospitable beauty. The wistful echoes of Govend's steel hang — a kind of round metal drum — fit with the film's contemplative pacing, while evoking quiet feelings of hope for a land rocked by instability and violence.

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