Oslo-based Hisham Zaman tells Liz Shackleton how he managed to pull together his second feature, Letter To The King, while developing his debut Before Snowfall, and how he won the Dragon award at Goteborg film festival two years in a row.

A Norwegian director of Kurdish descent, Hisham Zaman has won the Dragon award for best Nordic film at the Goteborg film festival two years in a row – first for Before Snowfall in 2013 and then for Letter To The King earlier this year.  

Screening in Dubai’s Muhr Feature competition, Letter To The King tells the separate stories of five refugees who travel from a camp in a remote part of Norway to Oslo.

The refugees include martial artist Champion (Hassan Dimirci); teenage boy Zirek (Zheer Ahmed Qader) who is in love with a Norwegian girl; an older man Miro (Nazmi Kirik) who is also involved with a local woman; activist widow Beritan (Ivan Anderson) and her daughter; and Akbar (Amin Senatorzad) who is facing deportation.

Their stories are connected by a letter to the King of Norway, written by an 83-year-old man Mirza (the late Alibag Salimi), who wants the king to help him return to his home country.

Zaman co-wrote the film with Berlin-based Mehmet Aktas (who co-produced Before Snowfall) and also produced with Norway’s Alan R. Milligan.

Born in Kirkuk in Iraqi Kurdistan, Zaman became a refugee himself at the age of ten, fleeing with his family to Iran and Turkey, before moving to Norway as a teenager.  He directed award-winning short film Bawke in 2005 and filmed Before Snowfall in Iraqi Kurdistan, Istanbul, Berlin and Oslo in 2010.

Where did you get idea for Letter To The King?

The idea came while I was waiting for finance for my debut feature, Before Snowfall, a complex project that was in the Norwegian financing system. This was taking time and I felt I needed to make my debut film and tell the stories I had inside me. So while we were waiting, I wrote Letter To The King with Mehmet Aktas, the Berlin-based co-producer of Before Snowfall. We decided to write something that was not complex to shoot but complex in its feelings. We wrote the script in eight weeks while my previous script was written over three years.

However, the original idea came when I was making my short film Bawke. The father of the boy who acted in the film was denied the right to stay in Norway and the government told him he could write to the King of Norway to appeal. He wanted me to write to the king for him, but I thought the idea was too naïve. Eventually he was told he could stay with his family – it was a complex case.

And the other picture I had in my mind came from when I was working as a car mechanic and dreaming of cinema in the 1990s. I remember a bus stopping outside Oslo central station and lots of people from different countries climbing down. What struck me was that several of them were wearing the same clothes – but it wasn’t a football team, it was a group of refugees coming to the city for shopping. I discussed with Mehmet how we could make a story about five characters that are bound together by this older man who is writing a letter to the king; five different destinies but they have a similarity to each other.

We shot and cut this film really fast in 2010 – and when we’d finished a really rough edit, I got the news that the finance for Before Snowfall had come through – so I left Letter To The King and went to Iraqi Kurdistan to shoot. We were on the road for 18 months with Before Snowfall because we had to do three to four months of pre-production in each country.

How did you cast the film? The five characters are so different in age, personality and language skills. Did you have specific actors in mind when writing the script?

Mostly I used non-professional actors – I can meet someone in a café, and if I like them and they fit into the universe I’m writing about, I’ll ask if they can go to our casting office. Some of the actors are professional – Ivan Anderson is a professional actress based in Berlin, and Nazmi Kirik was in [Hiner Saleem’s] Kilometre Zero. We joke that he is the Kurdish Al Pacino – many directors of Kurdish origin have him in mind when they are writing. But most of the other actors are amateurs – we wrote the role of the karate guy for Hassan, who is our friend.

Sadly Alibag is not with us any more. He was a unique man with a lot of energy and charisma. We also lost another actor. It’s like this sometimes – you have to do a film because you feel the time is right.

Did you set out to show a different side of Oslo?

There are many different subcultures in Oslo. You have these small communities that only belong to certain people. They find a way to build a café or restaurant because it’s not easy for them to access Norwegian society. But for me, it’s not enough to just visit these places – I want to go behind the door and discover the stories that are there. We shot in 50 locations for Letter To The King and none of them were created for the film.

Sometimes we couldn’t close the locations because we didn’t have enough money, so if someone came into a restaurant to order food, we had to wait, or ask them if they wanted to be in the film. This gives it a more documentary feel.

If you were waiting for finance for Before Snowfall, where did you find the money to make Letter To The King?

We only had enough budget for a short film – from producer friends and my own money – but I felt I needed to tell this story in that particular time and the only way to do it was outside the system. The crew deferred payments and I also worked for free for three years to make this film. This is not the most ideal way, but we had to do it otherwise the film would never have been made. We had regional funding from Film 3 and an equipment house Storyline Studios gave us all the equipment. Then we got Enjaaz funding a few years after shooting. It was a struggle but I’m proud of the results.

Were you surprised to win Goteborg’s Dragon award for a second time?

It wasn’t my intention to have two films back-to-back – really you need one year to promote a film. I edited Before Snowfall during the day, because I could get paid for that, and at night I edited this film. Then we had to decide whether to send it to Goteborg and it felt right because we had a relationship with them and I like the festival. So we sent it, and they put it in competition, and it won – but don’t forget this was not the same jury.

The jury even had a discussion about this – this guy won last year so should we give him the prize again? You need to share the awards around in social-democratic Norway – but I think this film spoke to the jury. Of course it was great for us, and it also inspired other people who have wanted to make films, but haven’t gone there because its such as a difficult road to take.

What are you doing next?

I secretly made a short film over the summer and next month will apply for funding to finish it. I’m also starting a new company, Snowfall Cinema, that will only produce my own films and I’m hoping will give me freedom as a filmmaker. My third feature will be something totally different – set in Europe but not about Kurdish refugees.