CIFF Reviews Round One: My Sweet Pepper Land, Ginger & Rosa, Mirage Men

Well, we’re long past due for the first batch of reviews for the films I saw at the Canberra International Film Festival. Unfortunately I’ve been ill again, and had some personal stuff going on that had essentially killed my motivation to work on anything that required more effort than sitting down on the couch and watching TV or reading a book. Well we’re past that now (not the being sick, I’ve once again got the flu and am also due for a minor medical procedure in a week or so… yay me!), so I’m back into writing. I’ve decided I’m going to do the reviews in order of viewing, so the first ones up are My Sweet Pepper LandGinger & Rosa, and Mirage Men. I’m aiming to get these smashed out of the way as quickly as I can, after which I may not post again until I get home from visiting the family at Christmas. All depends on how long it takes I suppose.

Just a reminder, when I do film reviews, I don’t tend to focus on the technical elements and quality of the cinematography (unless it’s a film that is being sold on those elements). I focus on how I felt about it, and the enjoyment I get out of it. I’m not a professional critic, and I’m giving an unabashedly biased review based entirely on my opinion.

My Sweet Pepper Land:

Golshifteh Farahani as Govend, the village teacher

Golshifteh Farahani as Govend, the village teacher

My Sweet Pepper Land is a modern day Iraqi Kurdish western directed by Huner Saleem starring Korkmaz Arslan and Golshifteh Farahani. It was a last minute addition to my festival line-up. I wasn’t really expecting a huge amount from it, I just went to see it out of curiosity about the concept. After all, westerns aren’t exactly the first genre that spring to mind when I think of Kurdish cinema. So it was a really pleasant surprise to find out that it was a cleverly written, darkly funny, and full of amazingly beautiful scenery that almost looked as if it could be the canyons of Utah (a fitting setting for a western).

The film follows the story of Baran (Korkmaz Arslan), a former member of the Kurdish army who has retired in order to return home and spend time with his mother and look after his garden… unfortunately his mother has plans to marry him off, and is constantly bringing women around to try and push the issue. To escape this situation, Baran returns to the army and asks to be posted where he is needed most, which is how he becomes the sheriff of a small isolated town on the Turkish border. As he arrives to take up his position, he meets Govend (Golshifteh Farahani), the teacher at the village school, who faces discrimination due to her status as a single woman. The film focuses on the pairs trials as they settle into life in the village, get to know each other, and deal with the interference of Aziz Ansari, a local elder who acts as a law unto himself, and runs smuggling operations in the surrounding countryside.

Korkmaz Arslan as Baran, the sheriff

Korkmaz Arslan as Baran, the sheriff

There are plenty of heart warming scenes, some confronting moments, and even some deadpan comedy – an early scene dealing with the first legal execution after Kurdistan has gained its independence is surprisingly amusing in a fairly dark way, and the photography session for Baran’s official portrait as sheriff was rather amusing too. What I did find interesting was the juxtaposition of modern technology, including electricity and the firearms used, and staples of the western genre, such as horses. Due to the bridge being destroyed, no vehicles can make it to the village, so everyone rides. The houses are relatively modern, but the style of the Pepper Land, the local inn the film is named for, is basic and rough, consisting mostly of a series of benches around a fire. It also doubles as the local courthouse, giving a feel of a place where the law has yet to gain a firm grip. It made for a very interesting visual style. Though a lot of the action in the film is threatened and implied more than actually shown, it’s interesting to note that when it does come down to the wire, the violence depicted is not the usual protracted shooting matches shown in westerns, rather being short, sharp and brutal. Though it felt like a bit of a shift in tone at the time, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I liked the effect, as it drove home the fact that this film was set in a place where violence is a fact of life, and war is a very recent memory.

Overall I loved the film. It was beautiful to watch, and told a charmingly offbeat but sweet love story while still dealing with some harsh realities and serious themes. The reactions of the townsfolk to Govend’s presence felt authentic, as did their resentment of Baran bringing law to a place that had always done just fine without it before. I have to comment on the music as well… most of the music in the film is provided by Golshifteh Farahani playing a Hang (a metal drum played with the hands, it is actually a European instrument.). It sounds absolutely amazing, and is perfect as background music for the sweeping shots of the surrounding landscapes that it accompanies. Some of the other music includes Elvis Presley (it seems Baran is a bit of a fan) and some other rockabilly, along with some local artists.

I rated My Sweet Pepper Land a solid 5/5, and considered it to be an outstanding start to my festival line-up. I think Huneer Saleem has made a fantastic film, though it is most certainly not going to be to everyone’s taste.

Note: I’m a big fan of the Hang as an instrument, and it was a pleasure to see it in this film, as well as coming across it in one of my last films of the festival, Intimate Parts.

Ginger and Rosa:

ginger-and-rosa-poster

Less than half an hour after I saw My Sweet Pepper Land, I went back into the cinema and sat down to watch UK director Sally Potter’s drama film Ginger & Rosa. I realised pretty quickly that I was off to a good start with my choices for the festival. My Sweet Pepper Land had blown me away, and it was looking like Ginger & Rosa was going to do the same. Interestingly, given that it’s an English drama film, of the five major characters who are English (there are a couple of American characters as well), only Mark is played by an English actor (Timothy Spall, and he’s as glorious as always). Ginger is played by Elle Fanning, Rosa by Alice Englert (an excellent young Australian actress, and I was very excited to hear she has been cast as Lady Pole in the upcoming TV adaptation of Sussana Clarke’s utterly brilliant historical fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell), and Ginger’s parents Natalie and Roland are played by Christina Hendricks and Alessandro Nivola respectively. That said, the accents are spot on, and if I hadn’t known better I’d have assumed that the cast was entirely English.
So, what’s the film actually about? It tells the story of two teenage girls growing up in 1960’s England. They’re nigh inseparable, spending all their time together skipping school, going out partying and generally just being kids, while trying to find their way. There are differences in the two. Ginger is a budding poet and politically active, wanting to be involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, while Rosa is more inclined towards faith in God and finding herself a man. Without wanting to spoil the film too much, the girls lives are shattered when their differing desires and needs lead to tension and secrets between Ginger, Rosa, Natalie and Roland. The film ends on a fairly heart wrenching note, as you realise that no matter what happens, Ginger’s faith in her best friend and her father have been irrevocably damaged.
From a visual point of view I thought it was superb. It really felt like looking at 1960’s England, the clothes, the buildings, everything just felt right. The acting in this film is absolutely top notch as well, though I did find some of the stylistic choices to be a little odd. I’m not quite sure what effect Sally Potter was going for with the awkward feeling pauses that kept cropping up in dialogue, and I did find the fact that Roland was sporting a style of facial hair that particularly unpopular during that time period to be a slight annoyance. Given that those were the only two problems I could recall with the film though, I think it’s a fairly good indication that it’s worth a watch. It didn’t grab me quite as much as My Sweet Pepper Land did, but was still a brilliant film.
I rated Ginger & Rosa 4/5. Sally Potter did an amazing job with it, and I think it’s a film that deserves recognition. I encourage anyone who enjoys coming of age stories and drama to take a look at it.
Mirage Men:
Now we come to the third film that I saw on the first day of the festival. Mirage Men. I had high hopes for this one, as I’ve always loved UFO conspiracy theories, mythology, mysticism, and all kinds of strange and wonderful stuff. In fact, one of the books in my collection that is falling apart from constant re-reading is Michael Craft’s Alien Impact, which is a fairly open minded look at all kinds of phenomena and conspiracy theories, everything from the idea of aliens being the modern form of elves and goblins visiting from another dimension to military experimentation and cover ups (the Philadelphia/Montauk Project section is a pretty fascinating read). Now this isn’t to say that I believe this stuff, just that I find it interesting. Unfortunately, it was a massive letdown (and actually the worst film I saw all festival)
I guess I probably would have enjoyed Mirage Men more if I felt it had been correctly advertised. See, everything I’d heard about it before hand made it sound like it was looking entirely at how the US Air Force had been using the concept of UFO activity to cover up their experiments with certain types of aircraft. It had a strong focus on the story of Paul Bennewitz, a (relatively) well documented case from the 80’s where Paul had intercepted communications for a nearby airbase regarding classified information, and was encouraged to believe it was UFO related by Air Force personnel. Richard C. Doty, the main contact Paul had with the Air Force, fed him false information continuously and pushed him to become more and more convinced of the reality of aliens, eventually leading to his commitment to a mental institution. So I went in expecting a documentary that would say “aliens aren’t real. Here’s the skinny on what we were doing and why,” an assumption that seemed well founded when it turned out that one of the primary people being interviewed actually was Richard C. Doty. Unfortunately, around the two third mark of the film, the rug got pulled out on that and it became apparent that despite the fact that Doty damn well knew that aliens were being used as a cover up, given that it was his damn job to disseminate the information to their targets, he actually believed in them because he was shown a video and a ranking officer told him it was real. At this point I pretty much lost all interest in it, because it became apparent that the man was an idiot. I’m sorry, but if you’ve just spent over an hour telling me that your job was to lie to people and get them to believe in aliens, and then you tell me that you believe in them because your boss told you they were real, then you sir, are a damn fool.
I also felt that it was a fairly blandly put together documentary. I like documentaries, but I don’t feel that they need to be boring (and I’ll be talking about a bloody fantastic one in a later review). Sure, getting some more info on Paul Bennewitz was interesting, and some of the people being interviewed had some intriguing stories to tell, but it just felt shoddily put together.
I rated Mirage Men 2/5, and I wouldn’t recommend checking it out to anyone but the most hardcore UFO fanatics.
That’s it for the first instalment of reviews from the film festival. I’ll start on the next lot tomorrow. If memory serves correctly, the second day of the festival for me was the first of the Freaky Friday events, which will mean I’ll be writing reviews for Magic Magic and the remake of the 1978 Ozploitation film Patrick.
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Written while listening to The Tea Party’s 2001 album The Interzone Mantras. I’m a big fan of The Tea Party and their whole blend of rock and roll, blues, Indian and Middle Eastern sounds, and this is my favourite album by them. Some of my favourite songs are on that album, specifically Cathartik, Dust to Gold, Interzone, Mantra and The Master and Margarita (a reference to a novel of the same name by Mikhail Bulgakov, which is one of my favourite satirical works). They do a mean cover of The Rolling Stones’ song Paint It Black as well.

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