Letter to the King (Brev til Kongen): Goteborg Review

Norwegian Film Institute
A small-scale but well-observed feature that weaves together five stories featuring Kurds in Oslo.

Kurdish-Norwegian director Hisham Zaman's low-budget second film won the top Dragon Award at the Goteborg Film Festival.

GOTEBORG -- Five stories featuring Kurds from a refugee center who are allowed to roam the Oslo streets for a day are woven together to form a rich tapestry in Letter to the King, the second feature of Kurdish-Norwegian director Hisham Zaman.

The film’s only 75 minutes long, which means that each of the five interconnected storylines has less than 15 minutes to introduce the characters, develop their conflicts and bring their stories to a close. But Zaman does so beautifully, further confirming he’s a storyteller of significant economy and observational skill as well as talent.

With this low-budget but impressive film, which was released in Norway at the end of January, the writer-director managed to take win the top prize at Sweden’s Goteborg Film Festival, the Dragon Award, for the second year in a row after last year’s win for his debut, Before Snowfall.

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The title of King refers to the story of Mirza (the late Ali Bag Salimi), an 83-year-old Kurd who’s written a letter to the King of Norway, explaining his situation as a refugee and how he’d like to go home for the funeral rites of his family members who died when his village of birth was ransacked. One assumes that, like in many countries, refugees whose residential status is still unconfirmed cannot leave the country, though, clearly Zaman’s less interested in the finer points of legal red tape than he is in emotional complexities and truths.

 “Oil brought you pride and wealth,” Mirza writes of Norway, “though it brought us misery,” referring to the fact his hometown in Kurdish Iraq was destroyed during the war. The emotional but lucid letter is occasionally heard in voice-over, and the mustachioed Mirza has taken it on himself to deliver the letter personally to the sovereign when a trip to the capital is organized for the people at the rural refugee center where Mirza stays.

Also on the bus to Oslo is Champion (Hassan Demirci), who dreams of becoming a martial arts teacher in Norway, though he only speaks Kurdish and German. His aptitude for brute force comes in handy when the soft-spoken Akbar (Amin Senatorzade), whose residence request has been denied and who’ll soon be sent back, visits two former employees, a kebab-joint owner and a baker, who still owe him money for work he’s done (illegally, since that’s the only option) but who refuse to pay.

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To avoid being sent back, preteen boy Zirek (Zheer Ahmed Qader) tries to fit in any way he can. Though still very young, he’s mastered the local language, has peroxided his dark locks to blend in better, calls himself Alex and has set up a blind date in Oslo with a Norwegian girl (Iselin D. Brandt Bestvold). Like Champion’s visit to a dojo, the young couple’s date not only offers both insight into what the characters desire and how they think and operate but are also shot through with moments of well-observed comedy that springs from the awkwardness of the Kurdish protagonists in their foreign surroundings and the locals' confrontation with the unfamiliar.

Zirek’s apparently simple task is complicated by the fact the beautiful Beritan (Ivan Anderson) has forced him to look after her little daughter (Derin Kader) while she sets out to complete an act of revenge on an man from her past, an unsuspecting taxi driver (Ilker Abay) who can’t recognize her because she’s donned a burka.

An almost wordless subplot involves a Norwegian woman and one of the Kurdish men, who initially seem to have hooked up for sex. But their story grows increasingly more complex in Zaman's hands, even though he often just seems to be observing the characters.

The writer-director and his three credited editors move seamlessly between the stories, movingly and insightfully shedding light on something incredibly complex: the way belonging to a group informs an individual and his or her circumstances and, conversely, the way each of the characters’ personality ensures they’re not just members of a uniform group but human beings with emotions, needs and desires that can be understood (if not necessarily condoned) by everyone. 

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Most of the dialogs are in Kurdish and the entire ensemble is well cast. The late Salimi delivers the necessary patriarchal gravitas that acts as a kind of glue between the different stories, even if his character doesn’t interact with everyone. Something similar happens with Qader’s Zirek on the opposite end of the age spectrum, as the boy’s precocious behavior suggests both that his immigrant status makes it impossible for him to have a regular and carefree childhood but also that, in the long run and with his survival skills, the Kurdish people will be just fine.

Though made on a humble budget, the film looks and sounds like no concessions were made. That said, David Reyes’ score tends to get a little too mournful too often.

Venue: Goteborg Film Festival (Competition)

Production companies: Zaman Film, Film Farms
Cast: Ivan Anderson, Ali Bag Salimi, Hassan Dimirci, Amin Senatorzade, Ilker Abay, Derin Kader, Iselin D. Brandt Bestvold
Director: Hisham Zaman
Screenwriters: Hisham Zaman, Mehmet Aktas
Producers: Hisham Zaman, Alan Milligan
Director of photography: Marius Matzow Gulbrandsen
Production designer: Aasmund Stemme
Music: David Reyes
Costume designer: Bente Ulvik
Editors: Sverrir Kristjansson, Inger Lise Langfeldt, Arild Tryggestad
No rating, 75 minutes.