Freelance writer. Melbourne based cinephile. Fond of food.
Published May 12th 2014
A Middle Eastern western
Director: Hiner Saleem (Vodka Lemon, Kilometre Zero, Beneath the Rooftops of Paris) Cast: Korkmaz Arslan, Golshifteh Farahani, Tarik Akreyi, Suat Usta
The Turkish/Iraqi border proves to be the perfect backdrop for a modern day Western in Hiner Saleem's highly entertaining My Sweet Pepper Land, an ode to a classic genre with a highly charismatic pair of actors at its centre and a dramatic powder keg of a premise that feels all too real given the region's political climate.
Damsel in peril, Govend (Golshifteh Farahani) meets the chivalrous Baran (Kormaz Arslan)
All the hallmarks of a classic western are here: a protagonist with his own innate code of honour enters a town where the law is powerless against a violent and omnipotent figure. It's up to our hero to save the damsel in distress and ensure justice prevails.
Baran has been dispatched to Erbil, a Kurdish occupied town in Iraq, close to the Turkish border. The reign of Saddam Hussein is over and as the newly appointed police chief, it's up to Baran to enforce the law. As the portraits of his recent predecessors on the wall (all deceased) attest, this is a dangerous and difficult job.
No sooner has he arrived at his post on horseback than henchmen of the local crime lord, Aziz Aga, are paying him a visit and sizing him up. Clearly usurping their control over the town will be his greatest challenge.
Baran is a brave and uncompromising individual, but the reigning gang quickly seize upon his kryptonite, a sweet teacher named Govend, who has arrived in town as the local school teacher. Already she is looked down on by the locals for being a single woman earning a living instead of staying at home looking after a husband.
Henchmen to local crime lord, Aziz Aga, provide a menacing presence.
Govend has only the interests of the children at heart, she has no political beliefs. She is Switzerland. Symbolically she plays a Swiss instrument called a hang. To hear her play it is a thing of wonder and provides the film with a gorgeously lilting soundtrack.
When Baran and Govend are together, the chemistry between them is palpable. His handsome stoicism and her delicate beauty are a perfect combination. As kindred spirits, striving to help others in a highly volatile environment, it's only natural that they should be drawn to each other.
As Baran, Korkmaz Arslan is a relative newcomer to the screen, but proves a magnetic presence. Golshifteh Farahani has become somewhat of an arthouse darling in recent years, with the Paris-based Iraqi exile giving luminous lead performances in The Patience Stone, About Elly and Chicken with Plums. She is just as radiant here and together with Arslan the sparks fly.
As well as being an excellent western and romance, My Sweet Pepper Land has moments of extremely dark humour. The opening scene in which a reluctant Baran is chosen to be a judge at a public hanging in a newly liberated Kurdish town, is a comedic tour de force. The seemingly innocent prisoner is propped up on a recently used electoral box while an incompetent official tries to hang him with a rope which is too long for the purpose. It's the kind of bleak satire you'd expect from neighbouring Eastern European cinema.
It's unfortunate that there isn't much of an audience for either Eastern European or Middle Eastern cinema in Australia. My Sweet Pepper Land is a gem of film, expertly written and directed. Seek it out, I doubt you'll be disappointed.