Letter to the King (Brev til Kongen)
Dir: Hisham Zaman
Having won plaudits for 2013’s Before Snowfall, Kurdish-Norwegian director Hisham Zaman returns with Letter to the King, a sparse and spare human drama that packs a heavy emotional punch. The film follows a group of Kurdish refugees temporarily living in a shelter in the snowy Norwegian countryside, who every now and then get to visit Oslo by bus to amuse themselves for a day. We follow a small number of them to see what they get up to in the big city; some of their agendas are cheerfully trivial, some are a lot more serious. The helpful and attentive teenager Zirek (Zheer Ahmed Qader) plans to meet a girl he’s been talking to on the internet, although he has to look after widower Beritan’s (Ivan Anderson) daughter at the same time. Beritan, meanwhile, heads off on her own, seeking revenge on the man who betrayed her husband back in Kurdistan, leading to her husband’s death. Ladie’s man Miro (Nazmi Kirik) hooks up with an old flame. The soon to be deported Ackber (Amin Senatorzade) tries vainly to get the money he is owed from cheap former employers. The violent Champion (Hassan Dimirci), seeks employment in a karate dojo. 83-year-old Mirza (Alibag Salimi) travels to the Royal Palace to hand over a letter to the king, detailing his family’s troubles as stateless refugees, pleading for help.
That’s a lot of threads to pull. At a refreshingly lean 75 minutes, each character’s personal dilemma is given relatively short shrift. Some characters get more time than they perhaps deserve, others not enough. Mirza’s letter is the real centerpiece that the other stories revolve around. His letter is narrated to us, a device that fills us in on the struggles of the Kurdish refugees in Europe, and it’s heartbreaking. Even on what is ostensibly a day to enjoy themselves and go about their business, there is a sense that all the characters are stuck, unable to move on from their surroundings and from the past.
The performances are strong, even from the first time actors like the young Qader and the elder Salimi, who the film is dedicated to. Ivan Anderson is covered by a burka for a good portion of her story, but does amazing work regardless, showing all the emotion we need to understand her pain through her eyes. Nazmi Kirik and Hassan Dimirci both show plenty of charm and wit. Zaman’s direction keeps everything flowing efficiently, never really showing off until it counts the most. The mood can become unduly melodramatic at times, but it’s an effective piece of work nonetheless.