Hiner Saleem made My Sweet Pepper Land, set in his native Iraqi Kurdistan, a year or so before the world awakened to the barbarity of "the Islamic State" roaring into northern Iraq. But you can't watch this superlative film without thinking of the IS threat to the Kurds and their imperfect but hopeful society in one of the world's most dangerous neighborhoods.
Pepper Land has been compared to a Western, and when the village bridge gets blown up by Turkish jet fighters in their guerrilla war with the Kurdish rebels who sometimes cross over into Iraq, horseback is the best mode of transport for Baran, the local police commander.
And he has to do battle, not with evil cattle barons, but with an evil traditional chieftan, who seems to have the whole town in his pocket.
If you think you've read the plot before, that's where the Western analogy ends. Be prepared for serious treatment of the place of women in a traditional Muslim society (other than Baran's mother, who appears only briefly, the women are most definitely not headscarfed). Govend, the local one-room school teacher, is set on bringing a bit of light to an otherwise benighted village, but she has an uphill battle as a single woman, already over the hill as an unmarried 28 year old.
And don't mess with those Kurdish women fighters, who operate in the hills between Turkey and Iraq (the film appears to be set in the years just after the fall of Saddam Hussein, when war-weary Iraqi Kurds fear Turkish wrath for sheltering PKK guerrillas). Again, you can't help but thinking of the thin line dividing Iraq from the medieval decapitators, with Peshmerga Kurds (often including female fighters) the only force standing in their way.
Inevitably, Govend and Baran, the two outsiders who challenge local ways, are brought together. The role of Govend the school teacher who dares to make her own way in the world is one that perfectly suits Iranian-born actress Golshifteh Farahani, who has so challenged her own country's conservative leadership that she doubts that she can ever return there (read this extensive profile in Spiegel Online International).
Hiner Saleem doesn't sugarcoat the situation in Kurdistan: there are numerous references to corruption and "bizness" by public servants, and Baran's frustration with post-Peshmerga life is encapsulated at the outset by a semi-comic botched execution of a criminal, where a smug Imam is the film's only reference to religion.
My Sweet Pepper Land is one of the best recent films out of the Middle East; it was featured ("Un Certain Regard") at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.