MY SWEET PEPPER LAND, France, Germany, Iraq, 2014, Colour. Starring Korkmaz Azlan, Golshifteh Farahani. Directed by Hiner Saleem. Rated M (Mature themes, Violence, Coarse Language). 100 minutes.
Some of us might have flown over Kurdistan, the remote area at the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, a mountainous region that has been the location for a number of Ukrainian films. But, most of us have never been to the area. This film offers us an opportunity to venture into this remote region, encounter the people who live there, people of a very different culture and many traditions that are being challenged in the contemporary world.
The director was born in 1965 in Iraqui Kurdistan.
Pepperland is actually the name of the local bar, a venue mainly for the men of the village where the film is set. It plays its part in the confrontations we are invited to watch.
The film opens rather sardonically with a prisoner being asked to invoke the help of Allah. Next, we are in an open courtyard with a military man addressing a small tribunal of a lawyer, a judge, a mullah and a former soldier. They are told that it is 2006, that they are free from Saddam Hussein, that they need to set up institutions, develop a police force as well as a military force. And the symbol of this reconstruction is the use of the death penalty. The pretensions of this meeting are undermined when the accused is put on a large cask and strung up – only for the cask to topple and for him to fall. There is continued discussion about whether the law and the Koran have indications how he should die.
But this is the story of the former soldier who wants to return home. The soldier‘s mother has other ideas and wants him to be married – so he reapplies to work in the police force, agreeing to go to the remote village where he is met on the highway by his deputy and they have to ride by horse to the village because the bridge has not been rebuilt. They encounter young woman the audience has already been introduced to, a teacher who has several brothers, the older of whom disapproves completely of her work, though she has the trust of her father. The two policemen have to let her dismount before they reach the village – appearances in terms of suspicious relationships are the subject of gossip and disapproval.
The film also introduces us to the local warlord, upholding the traditions of centuries, especially in strict sexual moral expectations – but has not a hesitation or scruple in using violence to control, to get rid of opposition, and to protect trade in selling medicines which are past their used by date.
Of course, this offers many opportunities for conflict, and the film takes them up with vigour. The new policeman is a strong-minded character and stands up to the warlord, something which the visiting judge is too afraid to do. He also gets medicine for a group of rebel women who hide out in the mountains, a reminder of the anti-Saddam Hussein era. And, he supports the local teacher who is suffering all the prejudices of anti-women stances of the warlord and the men, eventually being confronted by a delegation of her brothers who are ashamed of her and who are listening to gossip about herself and the policeman.
This might make the film sound melodramatic, and in some ways it is. But it is a solid drama exploring the character of the policeman and the demands made on him, on the young woman and her sense of vocation as well as her stances on being a woman in this kind of anti-women society.
Not essential viewing, but audiences who do go to see it will not be disappointed, will find it an interesting introduction to an unfamiliar part of the world as well as remnants of bias and prejudices, especially about women, that need to be confronted.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out May 22 2014.