BEIRUT: The scene opens on a man weeping from the darkness. As the lights come up, a sheikh encourages him to pray for his eternal soul. Another man then abruptly handcuffs him.
Cut to a wide courtyard, whose principal feature is a gallows. An official gives a brief speech to a handful of notables, most of whom wouldn’t look out of place in a mafia picture. The land has been liberated from the dictator, he says, and the nation-building process has now started in earnest. Today (as if to mark that progress) the state will execute its first criminal, a man convicted of rape and murder.
The prisoner is hustled into the courtyard, still weeping, and his jailers ask the official what to do next. A rope is found. The prisoner is made to stand atop a white ballot box, which is duly pulled away. No thought has been given to rope’s elasticity, however, and the man is left to dangle, slowly strangling, as his toes brush the concrete below.
When the prisoner and his rope collapse into a still-sputtering heap, the frustrated official orders him to be hanged again. Baran, an observer the camera has set aside for special consideration, protests that it is illegal to hang a man a second time. The prisoner, he says, must be sentenced to life in prison.
The prison hasn’t been built yet, the official shrugs. They have no choice but hang him a second time.
This set piece of acerbic black comedy marks the opening of “My Sweet Pepper Land,” the latest feature by the Paris-based, Iraqi-Kurdish filmmaker Hiner Saleem.
The movie is set in 2003, the year an Anglo-American invasion force overthrew the regime of then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein – the year Iraqi Kurdistan was officially liberated.
Baran (Korkmaz Arslan) is a peshmerga fighter who’s been reassigned to his fledgling country’s gendarmerie. The cocked-up lynching that commences the film confirms his discomfort with his new job, and he promptly resigns, telling his boss (a peshmerga contemporary) that fighters don’t make good policemen.
After a comic interlude during which he sees what awaits him if he goes home to his mother, Baran re-joins the police force, insisting that he be sent someplace where he can do some good. He’s assigned to Qamarian, the region where the Iranian, Turkish and Iraqi borders meet.
The far north of Iraqi Kurdistan is typical of marchlands far from state authority. In lieu of government, tradition rules – clan-based, socially conservative and patriarchal. In Qamarian, this takes the form of local strongman Aziz Agha (Tarik Akreyi), who sustains himself, the local economy and his retinue of gunmen by controlling the region’s main economic activity – the traffic in arms, medicines and booze.
The strongman offers the new police commander his protection. It is an ambiguous offer, given that all Baran’s predecessors (their photos adorning the wall behind his desk) have died on the job. Though his deputy Reber (Suat Usta) has cautioned that the agha is not to be trifled with, Baran reminds the capo that the state now enforces law and order in Qamarian, and duly offers Aziz Agha his protection.
The village’s other outsider is the schoolteacher, Govend (Golshifteh Farahani). Though she is popular with the students and a good teacher, she is opposed in her work by both her family – whose menfolk don’t like her living as a single woman in another village – and Aziz Agha, who stirs up rumors of her loose morals so parents will keep their kids at home.
The scenario of “Pepper Land” – a lone lawman squaring off against a crooked robber baron and his gang of thugs in defense of a pretty schoolmarm – has all the ingredients of a frontier Western, complete with striking locations and men on horseback, all packing firearms.
“Pepper Land” had its world premiere this past spring in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. It will have its Middle East debut Sunday evening at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil, where it’s the opening film of Semaine Arte, a week of feature-length films produced by the Franco-German broadcaster.
Hiner Saleem burst into public consciousness with the release of his 2003 feature “Vodka Lemon.” Set in a Kurdish village in post-Soviet Armenia, this delightfully grim-faced comic tragedy compelled perplexed critics to laud the writer-director as the new Emir Kusturica. Remember him?
Since then Saleem has demonstrated a fondness for holding a spotlight over human foibles, particularly as these relate to the Kurdish community. The results have ranged from the savage mockery of “Kilometre Zero” (2005), set in Baathist Iraq, to a wistfulness veering from amusement to sadness, evident in the Paris locations of “If You Die I’ll Kill You” (2011).
Casting its gaze upon independent Kurdistan, “Pepper Land” also lends itself to cultural criticism, though the cinematography of Pascal Auffray doesn’t forsake the aesthetic opportunities afforded by the Kurdish landscape, or the facial features of Iranian actor Golshifteh Farahani – who was perhaps the sole virtue of “If You Die I’ll Kill You.”
Saleem recognizes the aesthetic value of a beautiful woman on screen – not least when she’s a talented musician contributing to the soundtrack – and her worth in providing a love interest to the plot. Whether out of respect to the 1950s American Westerns to which his film nods, for reasons of personal discomfort or simply because he wants his movie to be seen at home, the director avoids sumptuous tableaux of sweaty coitus.
This would be out of step with the film’s tone anyway. “Pepper Land” oscillates between incongruity – the all-woman PKK units who move through Qamarian, for instance – and quiet despair, courtesy of Farahani. There’s a fair bit of slapstick too. At one point Saleem himself appears in the frame. He plays the rictus-faced photographer responsible for the mug shots of soon-to-be-deceased sheriffs.
Hiner Saleem’s “My Sweet Pepper Land” is screening Sunday at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil. Subtitled in English. For more information see metropoliscinema.net.