Having nabbed the Nordic film prize at the Gothenburg Film Festival for 2013’s “Before Snowfall,” Norwegian helmer Hisham Zaman pulled off the same honor for the second year in a row with his sophomore effort, “Letter to the King,” a poignant ensemble drama that crosscuts among various refugees and asylum seekers, each with their individual hopes and agendas, as they spend a day in Oslo. Although much smaller in scale than Zaman’s epic debut, this independently funded feature is considerably more mature and compassionate, continuing Zaman’s focus on the lives and culture of Kurdish people with a poignant appeal for human rights and the preservation of dignity. Offshore fest play should be brisk, with niche theatrical and smallscreen play possible in some territories.
Temporarily housed in a refugee shelter in a cold, remote part of Norway, a diverse collection of people from warmer climes try to pass the time in as congenial a fashion as possible. Among them: Champion (Hassan Dimirci), a high-strung martial artist and torture victim; 15-year-old Zirek (Zheer Ahmed Qader), whose fluency in Norwegian and youthful energy make him a surprising wheeler-and-dealer; attractive activist widow Beritan (Ivan Anderson), the mother of a young daughter; impressively mustachioed Miro (Nazmi Kirik), who puts his faith in love; downcast Akbar (Amin Senatorzade), who faces deportation; and despondent Mirza (Alibag Salimi), a dignified 83-year-old who desperately yearns to return to Kurdistan with his wife in time to bury one of his sons.
Most of the action takes place over the space of a single day, as the protagonists, along with others from the shelter, make an excursion by bus to the busy capital in the company of social worker Toril (Bodil Osvold). As the hours pass and the characters go their separate ways, small but potent dramas of happiness, humiliation, love and revenge unfold. Holding the narrative together is the titular “letter to the king,” a heartbreaking missive composed by Mirza, heard in voiceover, that provides context for the plight of the Kurdish refugees.
Zaman (born in Iraqi Kurdistan) and co-scribe Mehmet Aktas (a Kurd from Turkey) infuse their script with the phrasings of their amateur thesps, lending it an additional air of authenticity. So, too, do the costumes, seemingly borrowed from the characters’ everyday lives. The principal flaw of the film is that Zaman still has problems making his female characters as convincing and compelling as their male counterparts.
Strikingly lensed by Zaman’s steady d.p., Marius Matzow Gulbrandsen, the inner-city Oslo streets that the characters roam reveal a hidden world of Kurdish tea houses and immigrant-staffed bakeries and restaurants that may be surprising to those accustomed to seeing an entirely Caucasian Nordic world. Zaman filmed in Gronland, a neighborhood known as “Oslo’s multicultural melting pot.”
Expert cutting by Sverrir Kristjansson, Inger Lise Langfeldt and Arild Tryggestad keeps the action to a tight but unhurried 75 minutes. Other tech credits are pro.