As part of the international feature selection of EIFF 2013, Norwegian drama Before Snowfall was undoubtedly one of the festivals finest films. Following a Kurdish teenager’s vengeance driven path to murder a sister fleeing from an arranged marriage, the film touched upon elements of immigration, cultural oppression and maturity, flagging director Hisham Zaman as an exciting new talent in international cinema. Returning again to EIFF with a beautifully structured and emotionally powerful ensemble piece, Zaman’s newest offering (and Nordic Film Award winner) Letter to the King builds upon similar themes, creating a rich tapestry of the political and emotional experience of ‘the refugee’ with the similar mix of style and powerful storytelling rendered has previous film such a memorable piece.
The film opens with a striking image of 83 year old Ali Bag Salimi addressing the camera in a monologue, expressing a desire to deliver a letter to the king of Norway and pleading for permission to leave the country to attend the funeral rites of his family members (who died when his village of birth was ransacked). This striking opening becomes central to the films exploration of refugee status, with the main narrative revolving around characters individual experiences as refugees as both a community and secluded underclass. United briefly on a supervised bus visit to Oslo, the refugees are permitted to explore the city for the day, with the narrative broken up in the progression of several story-lines which occasionally overlap and influence one another. While the story-lines vary from dialogue free observations on what seems like a sexual ‘hook – up’, to stories of vengeful murder and youthful ‘blind – dates’, the drama occasionally flaunts a comedic twist that often arises from the Kurdish refugees displacement and peculiar behaviour in their new surroundings.
However this comedy is never at the expense of the characters and the interplay between the different story strands is effortless with each bearing equal emotional and thematic weight (a mean feat if you take into account the relatively short 75 minute running time). Ali Bag Salami’s letter, often appearing in voice over, also functions as a manifesto for the piece exploring the relationship between Norway and Iran through the historical buffer of the oil industry, in which Kurdish people subsequently suffered under Saddam Hussein. If Before Snowfall examined the cruel morality of religious doctrine, Letter to the King implements a diverse range of ages and characters types to attempt to portray both the history and the ‘present’ experience of Kurdish refugees living in Europe while crucially using character personalities to dispel stereotypes of the often politicised ‘modern refugee’.
As a fascinating, poignant and at times shocking film, Letter to the King demonstrates Hisham Zaman’s ability as a filmmaker to prioritise storytelling over budgeting, with the artistic sentiment to produce political filmmaking that uses characterisation rather than didactics to raise discussions on nationalism and human rights.
Director: Hisham Zaman
Stars: Ali Bag Salimi, Zheer Durhan, Nazmi Kirik
Runtime: 75 min
Country: Norway, United Arab Emirates