Before Snowfall (For snowen faller): Abu Dhabi Review

A Kurdish honor killing sparks a mythic quest that sometimes intrigues and sometimes loses conviction.

A Kurdish Iraqi boy comes of age obliged to carry out an honor killing against his sister.

Killing to avenge the family’s tarnished honor is an ugly subject that has proved a dramatic goldmine for films from India and Pakistan to Egypt and the Balkans, making the finely directed Before Snowfall a latecomer to the sub-genre. Its impact will be greater on audiences unfamiliar with all the films that have preceded it. In his first feature, talented Norwegian-Iraqi filmmaker Hisham Zaman follows the story of a teenager from the Iraqi part of Kurdistan to Istanbul, Berlin and Oslo as the boy tracks his sister, who has run away with her beau rather than submit to an arranged marriage. Though it lacks the exquisite irony of some culture clashes, there’s no denying the power of the mythic quest that saw John Wayne hunting down the young Natalie Wood in The Searchers with a similar idea in mind. Its uncompromising ending packs quite a punch. It won the best Nordic film nod at the Gothenburg and is already launched on an active festival life.

The story begins in a village in the Iraqi part of Kurdistan and continues road-movie fashion on location to Istanbul, Berlin and Oslo. Though it feels like an authentic Kurdish film, tech work in this Norwegian coprod has a high European look that smoothes the rough edges, maybe too much.

A striking opening scene introduces the teenage hero Siyar (winsome non-pro Abdullah Taher) as he is wrapped head-to-toe in cellophane and lowered into a tanker full of sloshing crude oil, which will spirit him across the border between Iraq and Turkey. Siyar is not looking to make a better life for himself in the West. He is out to track down his runaway sister Nermin (Bahar Ozen) and to kill her.

Flashback to a small village nestled in the breath-taking mountains of Kurdistan. The fatherless Siyar has become the man of the house at a tender age, and when his older sister runs off to join her beloved rather than marry the son of the Agha (village strongman), her brother is easily convinced to chase her down.  Bankrolled by the Agha and aided by his network of international smugglers who rather alarmingly extend across Europe, Siyar sets off for Istanbul. This is the most closely observed part of the film, a maze of back street flophouses where everyone speaks Kurdish. Here Siyar meets Evin (Suzan Ilir), a street girl disguised as a boy. As their relationship chastely develops, he will find himself in the same shoes as his sister, and will also opt for a very human choice without considering the consequences.

In the main role, newcomer Taher is short, bow-legged and humorously stoic, a far cry from standard hero material, but as a boy posing as a man he has the screen presence to get the film where it wants to go. The problem is that the screenplay often feels forced and too pat for its own good, notably in a lifeless scene in Berlin where Evin meets her father. Other improbabilities undercut interest in the two main characters and their plight.

Marius Matzow Gulbrandsen’s cinematography plants lasting images of the Kurdish mountains that beautifully rhyme with the snow-covered hills of Norway where the final show-down takes place.  Music by David Reyes is subtle and convincing.

Venue: Abu Dhabi Film Festival (New Horizons), Oct. 25, 2013.
Production companies: Mitosfilm, Paradox Spillefilm
Cast: Taher Abdullah Taher, Suzan Ilir, Bahar Ozen,  Billey Dimirtas, Hasan Demirci, Nazmi Kirik
Director:  Hisham Zaman
Screenwriters: Hisham Zaman, Kjell Ola Dahl
Producers: Finn Gjerdrum, Stein B. Kvae
Co-producer: Mehmet Aktas
Executive producers: Erik Poppe, Magnus Ravlo Stokke
Director of photography:  Marius Matzow Gulbrandsen
Production designers: Olivier Meidinger, Asmunch Stemme
Costumes: Birgit Kilian, Ozge Ozturk
Editor: Sverrir Kristjansson
Music: David Reyes
Sales agent:  Paradox
No rating, 105 minutes.

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