It's only at a place like the Cannes Film Festival where you can hear about an Iraqi-Kurdish modern western with dark comedy elements and greet it with a nonchalance. Hiner Saleem's entry in 2013's Un Certain Regard, "My Sweet Pepper Land," is no masterpiece, but it is an interesting blend of classic cinema tropes set in the extremely specific (and rarely discussed) liberated Kurdistan.
We open in 2003. Saddam Hussein has been ousted and the new Kurdish government is proud to present their first ever execution. "We can have no democracy without security and we can have no security without punishment." With that, a noose goes around a criminal's neck, but no one has given thought where to hang him. As the officials stoically look on in wide-angled portraiture (and the condemned's long legs touch the ground as he dangles) it's clear that Baran (Korkmaz Arslan) has had enough.
A former leader in the armed resistance he is now a high ranking security official, but pencil pushing in the capital is not for him. (Especially with his mother trying to fix him up with a wife.) He requests a transfer and ends up in Qamarlan on the Turkish border - a hub of weapons and prescription drug trafficking that's a two hour walk from the closest road now that the Turks have bombed out the bridge.
Also en route to Qamarlan is Govand (Golshifteh Farahani,) an educated, independent-minded woman compelled to teach in the village schoolhouse despite the protestations of her neanderthal-minded brothers. She hooks up with Baran en route (along with his Gaucho-attired deputy Reber, played by Suat Usta) and soon they're back at the village, and met by henchmen of the local warlord Aziz Aga (Tarik Akreyi).
Aziz doesn't want Govand there because she's a modern woman and he certainly doesn't want Baran there because he seems like a Commander who'll actually enforce the law. We very quickly recognize the Old West dynamic here. We've got the new sheriff, his loyal sidekick, the good woman and the bad guy. All we need is the cowboy music.
And we get it! At the station Baran will turn on the radio now and then and, wouldn't you know it, they get good rockabilly up there. It may be a village with only one phone (at the police station, so "you'll hear all about love and hens and roosters," warns Reber) but it also has gorgeous high thread-count bedding that would make an Anthropologie shopper weep. This deviation from strict realism - as well as the dissonance of seeing villains on horseback amid modern houses - works very much in "My Sweet Pepper Land"'s favor. The gorgeous cinematography both of the landscapes and the interiors are among the film's chief pleasures.
The inevitable bloody confrontation, however, pulls a bit of a switcheroo, opting not to go with slow-motion or exciting music. The violence is quick and dirty, not at all stylized like the botched capital punishment from the top of the film.
Throughout the film we'll see Govand taking comfort in playing a metal drum that looks like a giant tagine. It's echoey tones resemble a marimba's, but repetitive loops of fast-paced thrumming evoke a kind of drone. I initially thought it was some sort of traditional Kurdish instrument, but after a solid hour of Internet research (oh, the things I do for you!) I could not find out what the thing was called. I sent a hail mary over Twitter. A Turkish friend listed a number of different regional percussion instruments, but a follower from Finland soon recognized what I was describing was a Hang Drum - an instrument created by a Swiss-German collaboration in 2001. It's quite lovely music and further speaks to "My Sweet Pepper Land"'s ability to be both modern and traditional. A fine example of a detail not essential to the plot that adds an ineffable quality to this intriguing, enjoyable film.
SCORE: 7.4 / 10