This is the latest film by Iraqi Kurdish/naturalized French director Hiner Saleem, who directed the well-regarded ‘Vodka Lemon‘—which I have yet to see—, ‘Kilomètre Zéro‘, and ‘Si tu meurs, je te tue‘—which I did see (both good). I greatly enjoyed this one. It’s a genre Western set in Iraqi Kurdistan in the aftermath of the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime. I’ll let Variety’s fine critic Jay Weissberg, who saw the pic at Cannes last year, describe it
The opening sequence shows off Saleem’s deliciously picaresque humor, as independent Kurdistan’s first legal hanging is derailed by faulty equipment. If the scene feels like a Western set in a flea-bitten Mexican border town, the comparison is apt, since the helmer plays with parallels emphasizing the rudimentary infrastructure of the newly autonomous nation and the entitlements of regional warlords. Reluctant policeman Baran (intense-eyed, charismatic Korkmaz Arslan) wants to give up the force, but a brief return home to mother convinces him he needs to get away.
Baran is transferred to a godforsaken settlement near the Turkish frontier, where smuggling is the accepted way of life. Local kingpin Aziz Aga (Tarik Akreyi) offers the lawman protection in exchange for looking the other way, but the upstanding Baran isn’t interested in dealmaking. While unsympathetic to the smugglers, he gives clandestine support to a team of female Kurdish freedom fighters trying to get medical supplies to needy comrades.
The romance angle comes courtesy of returning schoolteacher Govend (Golshifteh Farahani), back in town after convincing her family she’s not ready to be married off quite yet. Frozen out by local parents uninterested in having their kids educated, she’s also a target for Aziz Aga’s salacious crew, which looks to humiliate the independent woman. Baran comes to her defense and gets involved when word gets back to Govend’s father that his daughter is immoral.
The pic’s ungainly title is derived from “Pepper Land,” the name of the local saloon and the only gathering place in this one-horse town. For Saleem, telling his story in an oater format allows him to indulge in a fair amount of genre play along with the Western genre’s longstanding openness to upending gender stereotypes. Govend is the victim of a smear campaign, yet she’s also unwilling to forgo her independence — the joy of freedom beaming from her face while heading back to town and away from the family makes clear her self-confidence and unwillingness to compromise. Adding all-women freedom fighters furthers the femme-empowerment message.
Enjoyable storytelling and sympathetic performances run throughout the story, though for sheer laugh-out-loud absurdism, nothing beats the healthy self-mockery of the opener. A calculated sparseness in the setting acts as a unifying force, especially when scenes tend to have a self-contained feel that doesn’t always create a sense of flow. Visuals favor Sergio Leone-style closeups along with stunning landscapes featuring pink-tinged sunsets and ravines like Utah canyons, showcasing Kurdistan’s natural beauties. Music features a smile-inducing mix of tunes ranging from Elvis to Western twangs to rockabilly, tied together by the multitalented Farahani’s own playing on the steel hang.
Second degré absurdism underlies the whole film, e.g. “sheriff” Baran playing Bach and Elvis in his “one-horse” Kurdish village and the all-female detachment of Turkish Kurdish (obviously PKK) guerrillas. But the pic also takes on more serious themes, such as archaic codes of honor, patriarchy, and forced marriage, which is what the protag Govend resists. And, it should be said, the sublime Golshifteh Farahani is more beautiful than ever, rien à dire. Another theme: the determination of the intrepid, incorruptible Baran to impose the authority of the state and rule of law, here on the outlaw tribal potentate Aziz Aga. French reviews of the film are mostly tops (and particularly those of Allociné spectateurs), as is critic Deborah Young’s in The Hollywood Reporter. Trailer is here. So thumbs up to this one! À ne pas manquer.
While I’m at it, I should mention an Afghan film I saw last fall, ‘Wajma (An Afghan Love Story)’, directed by Barmak Akram, which also deals with patriarchy and archaic codes of honor, but not among tribespeople or villagers but in the educated, urban well-to-do class, here in contemporary Kabul. It’s a bleak, depressing film, and does not offer a very positive image of Afghan society—as I tweeted after seeing it—but is well done and may be seen. Hollywood reviews (good to mixed) are here, here, and here, French reviews (mostly tops) here, trailer is here.