From Kurdistan to Haifa, via Paris

Enjoying his time in the "small paradise in hell," outspoken director Hiner Saleem speaks to the ‘Post’ about his newest offering, a combination Western-Samurai film with a uniquely Kurdish flavor.

Kurdish director Hiner Saleem 370 (photo credit: courtesy)
Kurdish director Hiner Saleem 370
(photo credit: courtesy)
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.
Born in 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.
An easy movie. But when I went to the set, it just got bigger and it was too late to do anything.”
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 teach.”
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 story.”
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.
When he 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.