x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

My Sweet Pepper Land coats heaviness with humour

My Sweet Pepperland is a funny, poignant film set in post-Saddam Kurdistan that also manages to serve as a modern-day Iraqi Western.

A scene from My Sweet Pepper Land, which showed at Cannes before its screening at the 2013 Abu Dhabi Film Festival. Courtesy ADFF
A scene from My Sweet Pepper Land, which showed at Cannes before its screening at the 2013 Abu Dhabi Film Festival. Courtesy ADFF

The Sanad-backed My Sweet Pepper Land arrives in Abu Dhabi after a successful launch in the Directors’ Fortnight official selection at the Cannes International Film Festival. It went down a storm then and it’s easy to see why.

Although the synopsis reads like yet another heavy drama dealing with life after war – set in post-Saddam Hussein Kurdistan, on the border of Turkey and Iraq – the director Huner Saleem has instead made a funny, poignant film about the battle between modernity and tradition, in the dusty aesthetic of the American Western-made-modern.

“Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Kurdistan that was in Iraq has become a place of reconstruction,” says Saleem. “There are building sites everywhere. Going back there, I realised that the region had so many similarities with the American Wild West. They are installing electricity, building roads and schools. It’s a ‘no man’s land’ that is implementing its first set of laws. Until recently, it was a group of fiefdoms, although now the state has finally imposed a rule of law.”

From the humorous first scene in which a public hanging in the town is derailed by faulty equipment, it’s clear that this story will be told from an absurdist perspective. As a Western, it’s more like Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan Dead Man (1995) than a Sergio Leone gun-toting Spaghetti Western.

Saleem, whose previous films include the much-admired Vodka Lemon (2003), says he had no choice but to go for a comedic angle. “I like to deal with heavy subjects with humour. I always believe that if I can get an audience to laugh two or three times, then they won’t be bored, or want to lynch me.”

Set in 2003, the story adopts the traditional stranger-rides-into-town structure that is at the heart of most great Westerns. Taking on the mantle of a Kurdish Clint Eastwood is the dark-eyed Korkmaz Arslan who plays Baran, a former Kurdish independence fighter so browbeaten by his matchmaking mother that he takes a job as sheriff in a remote village on the border with Turkey just to get away from her. Even knowing that his predecessor was murdered does not stop him. And once there, he insists on upholding the law, much to the chagrin of Aziz Aga (Tarik Akreyi), the de facto boss and criminal mastermind of the town.

Baran’s life is further complicated when he meets Govend (Golshifteh Farahani), a schoolteacher who is causing much consternation by being almost 30 and unmarried. Aziz Aga and his crew see her as a threat and call for her to be sacked. As such, her fight for liberty is as big as Baran’s struggle to uphold the law, if not bigger. “She’s a woman who wants to break free,” says Farahani. “I wanted to do this film so much, as I love playing rebels.”

Farahani (About Elly, The Patience Stone), who previously worked with Saleem on Si tu meurs, je te tue (2011), is a great choice for the role because she is a symbol of female liberation, banned from her native Iran for challenging social norms.

Filming in Kurdistan served as a reminder of Farahani’s own past, she says, and the challenges she shares with her character Govend.

“When I was flying there, I flew over Turkey and I saw all these flights going to Tehran. I was so close to the border with Iran, I could almost see over it; it struck me especially as this film deals with the issues of border. It feels so strange that everyone can go to Tehran except me.”

• My Sweet Pepper Land screens tonight at 9pm at Emirates Palace and on Tuesday at 3.30pm in Marina Mall, Vox 5. Visit www.adff.ae