My Sweet Pepper Land (2013) — Image via memento-films.com

My Sweet Pepper Land

Directed by Hiner Saleem (2013)

Moral ambiguity has been a central element of the Western film genre for decades. At this point, it is pretty rare to see a Western in which the good guys are all good, the bad guys are all bad, and government authority is an unequivocal force for peace and justice. And so when watching Hiner Saleem’s My Sweet Pepper Land (Aga) — a Western in all but location, set in Iraqi Kurdistan in the wake of the ouster of Saddam Hussein — one keeps waiting for something to complicate the dynamics of good vs. evil that have been set up early in the narrative. Whether that ever really happens is itself ambiguous, leaving it up to the viewer to sort out whether the distribution of moral authority in the film is really as straightforward as it seems on the surface.

My Sweet Pepper Land (2013) — Image via memento-films.comMy Sweet Pepper Land begins with the botched hanging (from a basketball hoop) of a rapist and murderer in the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil. Disgusted by this pathetic spectacle, former resistance fighter Baran (Korkmaz Arslan) decides to quit the region’s new police force. He quickly realizes, however, that the prospect of returning to his home village and marrying a local girl is just as unattractive as urban law enforcement. Going back to his old police commander, he asks for a new assignment in a place where he can feel more useful — implicitly, a place where he can carry out a clear moral mission, as he feels he did during his time in the resistance. He gets his wish in the form of a posting as the regional commander in a remote mountain village on the Turkish border.

My Sweet Pepper Land (2013) — Image via memento-films.comWhile Baran is in transit, we meet Govend (Golshifteh Farahani), a young woman who has been working as the only teacher in the village where Baran has been posted. During a visit with her family, her father asks her to stay and marry a local man rather than going back to the village, but she convinces him that she is doing important work there and needs to return. When she does return, however, we soon learn how challenging her job has become. Many parents resent having their children taught by a woman, especially one who is scandalously unmarried at the ripe old age of 28, and the local strongman, Aziz Aga (Tarik Akreyî), is doing everything he can to get rid of her, from changing the locks on the school building (where she also sleeps) to spreading false rumors about her alleged sexual exploits.

My Sweet Pepper Land (2013) — Image via memento-films.comMost of the film is devoted to the mounting conflict between, on the one hand, Baran and Govend — assisted by Baran’s local deputy Reber (Suat Usta) and an all-female band of anti-Turkish resistance fighters — and, on the other hand, Aziz Aga’s gang of thugs, who draw on their leader’s traditional feudal authority to control the smuggling trade and virtually everything else that goes on in the village. In the process, viewers come to understand that this is a conflict pitting modernity, development, law and order, and uncompromising nationalism against social backwardness, hypocritical conservatism, collaborationism, and corruption.

Although the manner in which My Sweet Pepper Land draws its distinctions between good and evil can be a bit unsettling, particularly in light of how the central conflicts are ultimately resolved, Saleem’s film has a good deal in its favor. The acting is uniformly excellent, with Arslan attracting particular attention for the persistent twinkle in his eye that imbues even the starkest scenarios with a dose of dark humor. The unique geography of the craggy territory surrounding the village lends the film a visual feel that is somehow simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic. And the soundtrack compellingly combines traditional Western twang-guitar sounds with some entrancing performances by Farahani on the Hang, a tuned percussion instrument that looks and sounds like something ancient but was in fact invented in the year 2000.

After its recent screenings at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival and appearances at several other festivals worldwide, it is unclear how much theatrical distribution My Sweet Pepper Land will receive, but those who have an opportunity to see it will definitely be given plenty to chew on.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.