"Letter to the King" – Intensely Inspired by Real Life

in 15th Festival of European Cinema, Lecce

by Margarita Chapatte Lopez

The FIPRESCI jury at the 15th Lecce European Film Festival unanimously decided to award Letter to the King by Hisham Zaman, a Kurd living in Norway. This prize is not the film’s first, as Letter to the King, written by Zaman and Mehmet Aktas, a Turkish Kurd living in Madrid, has already won the Dragon Award for Best Nordic Film at the Göteborg International Film Festival.

Interweaving five stories about people searching for love, job, integration… or vengeance, Letter to the King (Brev til Kongen) portrays the social difficulties of a foreign community in Norway.

Letter to the King was shot in 35 days without any financial backing, nor government cultural grant. Zaman explains that working on a totally self-financed film protects him from pressure by producers and allows him to freely express all his personal ideas. Many rushes from Zaman’s first feature film, Before Snowfall (Før snøen faller), were profusely used in the construction of Letter to the King. Zaman’s debut road movie from 2013, travels between Kurdistan, Istanbul, Berlin and Oslo and also focuses on Kurdish immigration.

The idea for Letter to the King came from the life of Champion, a judo teacher who desperately tries to get a job. From this first story sprung the other characters, all of them on their way from a refugee camp to Oslo. This constructs a simple but beautiful narrative, a concise evidence of great storytelling in only 75 minutes.

All the characters in Letter to the King are real. And even though they are all Kurds, it doesn’t mean that the film is only about immigrants: it is a portrait of a bunch of people trying to find their place in the world. By shooting them outside, in the streets of Oslo, the film avoids a certain trend in Norwegian cinema towards cold internalization. Sensibility is the key in Letter to the King, that beautifully conveys the experience of life in a city while fighting against social rejection. The title of this little jewel comes from the voice-over reading of a letter to the Norwegian monarch, written by one of the protagonists, in which he explains his life as a Kurd immigrant who has been living in the country for ten years. He is the oldest of the five main characters in and, even though each of them faces a different destiny, their stories are perfectly linked by the letter which wraps the entire story.

Most of the characters are played by non professionals, 18 to 85 years old, and Zaman reports he had learned a lot from their admirable honesty. The emotional intensity of the drama is driven by them. Letter to the King’s strength and energy are drawn from its protagonists’ varying motivations: some of them accept life as it comes while others strongly fight against adversity.

But all this doesn’t mean that the film is very tough, as some of its more comic sequences have a touch of the absurd. Zaman’s previous works, which include internationally awarded short films such as Bowke (2005), are quite similar in their approach. He graduated from Den Norske Filmskolen (Lillehammer Norwegian Film School) in 2004, but was already an awarded filmmaker in Norway before: his short film The Bridge (Broen, 2003), made in collaboration with fellow students and financed privately, won the Norwegian Playwright’s Association’s Award for Best Screenplay.

Edited by Yael Shuv