Cannes 2013 Review – My Sweet Pepper Land

Iraqi Kurdistan, a remote village. A new sheriff comes to town. It is probably a very unexpected setting for a traditional Western, but Hiner Saleem makes it seem the most natural location in his Un Certain Regard entry My Sweet Pepper Land.  Peppered (no pun intended) with humor, at times morbid, this conventional but utterly watchable tale of two outsiders finding each other in a close-knit community adds regional social commentary to a straightforward film to give it just that little extra.

Although Golshifteh Farahani as Govend is put front and center for all press materials for the film, actually Korkmaz Arslan as Baran is the slightly more leading character. A police officer from Erbil (the Kurdish capital since it became an autonomous region from Iraq in 2005) chooses to become the police commander in a small town in the 'Bermuda Triangle' of the border area between Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. On the last part of the trip, while on horseback, he meets Govend, a young elementary school teacher on her way to the same town. Upon arrival, both are regarded with suspicion by the townsfolk, certainly by local kingpin Aziz Aga (Tarik Akreyî) and his gang, who run the town and control smuggling in the surrounding mountains. Baran has come to lay down the law, and he is not easily cowed, even though the Aga gang tries to intimidate both him and the teacher. As the two grow closer together, rumors spread and soon the two are pitted against the rest of the town, with a confrontation with Aziz Aga and his band inevitable.

Director Hiner Saleem uses every Western trope known to man, right down to wide sunset shots, to create a sort of 'John Ford in the Middle East.' Some shots in the surrounding mountains are in fact right out of the John Ford playbook, as is the loner character of Baran. Add to that a soundtrack filled with Western motifs and Americana, and you have a film that could have been released by an American studio in the '50s.

Save for the typical regional issues also on display, that is. Govend is in a tussle with her family, most notably her multitude of brothers, about her independence as a woman. They want her to marry, while she wants her freedom and to wait for a man she loves. Baran's mother had been trying to hook him up with a bride as well, one of the reasons for his flight into remoteness. The 'shame' of these two single people coming together outside of an 'arrangement' is a theme used by the film's antagonists to pit the village against them.

Another theme not commonly seen in Westerns is the struggle for Kurdish independence in the Turkish part of Kurdistan. A band of female freedom fighters regularly crosses the border to find medicine and food in the 'free' Kurdish region within Iraq (their decisive deus ex machina role late in the film is probably the screenplay's weakest link), and they receive help from both Baran and Govend. "I don't agree with them politically, but I understand them emotionally," says Govend at one point, an outspoken political statement by the director, himself of Iraqi-Kurdish descent.

The film leans on the charm and chemistry of its two leads, while all other characters are of the one-note variety. But Arslan and Farahani are good enough actors to sell the budding relationship between two people driven together by a society that does not appreciate their unconventional (call it 'modern') ways and their butting into the town's affairs (mostly the criminal affairs of Aziz Aga). In a scene with Baran singing to Govend, when they are really starting to get interested in each other, the two look into each other's eyes and the result is electrifying.

The screenplay might take a few easy routes in the final third, but by then the story's charm and the way it is told have won over the audience. The slightness is forgiven in exchange for a thoroughly enjoyable film that has a lot of rewatch potential, and a large dose of humor to boot.