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Kurdish Western takes top prize at Chicago International Film Festival

“My Sweet Pepper Land”

Freelance writer Bill Stamets reports:Films set in Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq won key prizes Friday night at the 49th Chicago International Film Festival.

Among the 31 awards announced at the W Chicago-City Center Hotel in the Loop, the top prize went to “My Sweet Pepper Land,” a Kurdish Western directed by Hiner Saleem. The jury for the International Feature Film Competition bestowed its Gold Hugo for best film on this Iraqi-French-German co-production about iconic frontier justice.

Michael Kutza, founder and artistic director of the annual festival, gave his personal Founder’s Award to “A Thousand Times Good Night,” directed by Erik Poppe. French actress Juliette Binoche plays a photojournalist covering female suicide bombers in Kabul.

Iran is the locale for “Trucker and The Fox,” winner of the Gold Hugo in the Docufest Competition. Director Arash Lahooti portrays an amateur auteur fixated on casting a fox and other critters in videos he enters in local film festivals. The Docufest jury also gave a Special Mention to “Mothers,” Xu Huijing’s poignant report on a northern Chinese village enforcing a state quota of female sterilizations.

Second-place awards from the International jury include a Silver Hugo Special Jury Prize for the “The Verdict,” a Belgian thriller about contradictions in legal logic. French director Jerome Bonnell won a Silver Hugo for Best Director for his “Just a Sigh.”

For his role as the famed Solidarity leader, Robert Wieckiewicz earned a Silver Hugo for Best Actor in “Walesa: Man of Hope,” directed by Polish director Andrzej Wajda. Nadeshda Brennicke accepted a Silver Hugo for Best Actress for her turn in the German film “Banklady.”

The New Directors Competition highlights “first and second feature films receiving their U.S. premiere in Chicago.” This jury voted a Gold Hugo for “La Jaula De Oro” from Mexico by director Diego Quemada-Díez. The Silver Hugo went to “Life Feels Good” from Poland. The jury for the After Dark Competition, focusing on the horror genre, picked the American film “Cheap Thrills” for its Gold Hugo.

Winners in the Short Film and Student Film competitions came from Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Iceland, Israel, Kenya, Spain, Switzerland, U.K. and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The festival continues through Thursday at the AMC River East 21.