Hiner Saleem, the director of the film, My Sweet Pepper Land, which had its
Israeli premiere at the 29th Haifa International Film Festival is having a good
time on his visit to Israel.
“It’s like a small paradise in hell,” he
says. The hell he’s talking about is the rest of the Middle East.
Iraqi-controlled Kurdistan, he moved to Europe when he was a teenager and has
made several critically acclaimed feature films including Vodka Lemon, Beneath
the Rooftops of Paris and others.
Although he’s not here to talk about
politics, he’s more than aware of the situation in Syria, particularly since
Kurds suffered brutal chemical weapons attacks at the hands of Saddam Hussein in
the Eighties, similar to the recent ones near Damascus: “I’ll be happy to see
the end of [President Bashar] Assad, although the forces fighting against him
are also not good. Unfortunately, for me as a Kurdish person, it seems like a
choice between a plague and cholera.”
The outspoken director has chosen
to tell a story about Kurdistan in his latest film, a “cowboy in the mountains
story,” which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last spring.
The delightful, thought-provoking and romantic My Sweet Pepper Land
is set just
after the first Gulf War. Baran (Korkmaz Arslan), a Kurdish freedom fighter,
cannot accept the position he is offered in the new Kurdish government, which
also has its flaws (which are illustrated in a darkly comic opening sequence
featuring a botched execution). He ends up becoming the sheriff in an isolated
mountain village, where he hopes to find serenity. But he finds himself facing
off against a corrupt warlord, and defending a young schoolteacher (Golshifteh
Farahani) who is at odds with both the warlord and villagers because she is
female, educated and independent- minded.
It’s a combination of a Western
and a Samurai film, but with a uniquely Kurdish flavor.
“I had just made
a film called, If You Die I Will Kill You
, and it was a big, heavy movie. I
wanted to make a small movie, with one actor, in a small village.
movie. But when I went to the set, it just got bigger and it was too late to do
The way in which it got bigger was the inclusion of the
plotline involving Govend, the teacher.
“In all my movies, I talk about
women,” says Saleem, who speaks in a combination of French and English, assisted
by his wife, the actress Veronique Wuthrich, who has a small part in the movie.
“For the Middle East and all Muslim countries, if women are not free, how can
people be free?” The village in the film is “archaic, tribal. This woman and her
school represents modernity. She is intelligent and she struggles to
Asked how he was able to tackle such burning issues in such an
entertaining way, Saleem shrugs.
“I’m free in my head. I work more with
feelings than with rational thoughts. I let my sentiment free and I tell the
To say that Saleem has an unusual background for an international
director would be an understatement.
He grew up in the mountains of
Kurdistan, where his father fought with the Kurdish resistance movement. He
first saw drawings in a book of Kurdish poetry as a child.
“I loved to
look at the pictures. It was like seeing God for me.” He was around seven when
he first encountered television and he was also fascinated by it, although he
knew not to believe what he heard on the news broadcasts controlled by Saddam
Hussein’s regime. Although he moved to Italy at 17, he returned to Kurdistan
after the first Gulf War to film refugees coming home and this footage became a
documentary that was shown at the Venice International Film Festival. From then,
he knew he wanted to be a director.
“That was my objective, my dream. I
just had to wait for the occasion, the right moment,” he says.
came up with the screenplay for Beyond Our Dreams
, a comedy set in Paris, “it
opened all the doors.”
Saleem, who is also the author of a memoir called
My Father’s Rifle: A Childhood in Kurdistan
, says his next feature will be about
the booming economy in Kurdistan.
“It will be called Money Baby
. It’s a
comedy/thriller about the economic boom and about a guy who becomes a
multi-millionaire suddenly,” he says.
Asked where he feels at most at
home, he smiles.
“My country, it’s in my head,” he replies.