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Cinema as a tool to humanise the refugee question: A talk with filmmaker Hisham Zaman

Amid a rising refugee crisis, the works of Norwegian/Kurdish director Hisham Zaman provide a more humanistic context to the struggle of displaced individuals crossing roads into and out of so called borders

Adham Youssef, Tuesday 22 Dec 2015
Hisham Zaman
Hisham Zaman during the 8th Panorama of the European Film, Cairo 2015 (Photo: Adham Youssef)
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After international news agencies reported the discovery of the drowned body of Syrian-Kurdish three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who had drowned with his mother and his five-year-old brother while attempting to reach the shores of Greece, the international committee stood in shock and awe, as they became exposed to the cost displaced individuals are willing to pay to escape hardships in their homeland.

“It was a tragic incident, but this is happening and has happened for many years. This Kurdish boy we saw in the water, many like him died in the sea and in the desert, but the camera was not there or wasn’t interested” award winning director Hisham Zaman told Ahram Online, while discussing one of his short films Bawke (2004.)

In the film that was produced 11 years before Kurdi died, a conversation took place between a Kurdish father and a son who just got off from underneath a truck after reaching a border of a European country, where they were trying to sneak into.

“Why do we always have to flee? I can’t take it anymore”, yells the boy.

The father, tired and helpless, answers “I don’t know why. I promise this is the last time.”

Bawke 2004
(Phoho: still from Hisham Zaman's short Bawke 2004)

The work of Zaman raises several questions about refugees, giving a humane context to the existing problem. His films portray them as individuals who are forced to leave an original place of residence and seek other places due to many reasons- not just civil war or a crisis.

The Norwegian/Kurdish director believes that “we have to look at them as humans. Because not one of them woke up and said I am a refugee, I should behave like one. We should not forget that once they were living in their own countries, they had peace, home, and their own culture.”

“They once had everything. But then they were pushed by conflicts and other individual reasons. Those very reasons we don’t always get from the news and the media, because they might not interesting for the media,” Zaman told Ahram Online, asserting that more art should look at refugees as “people who have a dream, but who due to obvious reasons will approach it differently.”

Anxiety and hope can be seen on the face of both the father and the son, and Zaman utilised his cameraman to capture close-ups that transferred these dramatic feelings. The father is indeed older than his son. But has the agony and suffering made the child as old and tough as his father?

In Bawke, Zaman, here a writer-director, establishes a dilemma the father falls into: will this “dream” be achieved if he stays with his child or when they are separated with the son remaining in the country? The father-son relationship, global as it is, was articulated in a manner that can be understood.

Bawke 2004
(Phoho: still from Hisham Zaman's short Bawke 2004)

“You don't have to be a refugee to understand the characters. The two characters are victims of war, who I wanted the audience to start caring and knowing,” Zaman explained.

The 15-minute short film was screened in several festivals and events and received more than 30 national and international awards, including one in the leading Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in 2005.

At its end, it pays tribute to “all those leaving their native countries and their roots and language in search of a better life.”

Having been a refugee in Norway himself, who faced harsh economic conditions and uncertainty, Zaman said his work attempts to say something about the reality of these people. “They need a safe place. They seek happiness, but the way to happiness seems longer than they expected.”

Before the Snowfall (2013), Zaman’s debut feature film, transfers the dilemma to a 6-year-old boy, Siyar, who starts a journey across borders in order to find his sister who fled the night before her wedding, but eventually discovers many others aspects of life, such as friendship and love.

“Siyar is crossing roads. Humans are made to cross roads, and that’s how we develop or learn and move,” Zaman explains, adding that “in this road we will meet and see lives, we explore and meet our destinies. We aim and search for something. But do we get there?”

Zaman revealed that he is storyteller of significant talent as he managed to inflict discomfort in the mission Siyar is asked, by tradition and family, to do. He is also a victim. Instead of playing football or enjoying his teenage years, he is assigned by the village to take revenge and acquire honour.

Hisham Zaman

Despite being entrusted to be the vanguard of these burdens like tradition, Siyar’s journey suggested that individuals like him can repeal by smashing the circle of tradition.

The film won the Dragon award for Best Nordic film at the Gothenburg film festival as well as the prize for best cinematography at Tribeca film festival, introducing Zaman to the international filmmaking scene.

Filmed over a period of two years, the film hardly had professional actors, and depended on minor details which actual smugglers shared with Zaman. En route to Europe, Siyar is smuggled in an oil truck, while being wrapped in plastic. He also passes by Turkey, who Zaman also knows, due to his experience as a refugee.

When Zaman arrived in Norway as a refugee at the age of 17, he was convinced by his father to abandon his passion for cinema and study mechanics instead. He worked at a Toyota repairing car station for three years.

“My father told me that cinema will not put food on the table… However, I applied at an amateur club to watch and learn how to make short films,” he remembered, adding that at first he used to borrow and rent the filming equipment until his first work was shown in 1998, receiving positive feedback and deciding to make a career of this art.

What makes Zaman’s cinema intriguing and amazing is casting and the script. He started this in his first films, but perfected it in his second feature Letter to the King. The complexity and richness in this film lies in the five main characters which the film revolves and concludes around.

The five are different tales that Zaman and award winning scriptwriter Mehmet Aktas drew, which enhances his argument that the refugees are “different” human beings. “This is what makes us human, because we are so different. But at the same time, we are judged by the politicians, media, society as one group. But how does this group look at themselves?”

The film starts as the whole group move from a refugee centre and are allowed to roam the cold streets of Oslo streets for a day. Each with an agenda.

Letter to the King
(Photo: Still from Hisham Zaman's film Letter to the King)

One of the characters is Mirza (Ali Salimi) an elderly Kurdish man who takes the opportunity of visiting the capital to deliver a letter to the King of Norway, asking permission to be granted papers to attend the funeral of his sons who were killed in the war in Kurdistan, and to return back.

However, the emotionally complex letter is symbolic as a plea, explaining the overall refugee situation, rather from a Kurdish point of view, Zaman’s point of view.

Mirza writes that back home, a guest is considered a resident of the house after they spend only a couple of days, while Mirza and his wife spent years in Norway.

As the characters go on to achieve the crescendo Zaman has written for them, whether it is love, money, vendetta, sex, security, we hear the emotional voice-over of Mirza reading the letter.

On the same bus to Oslo is another character also played by an amateur actor Hassan Demirci, who giving away his characteristics and background would be a shame. What can be said is the actor touched upon what living illegally with despair in a foreign country means.

“The film raises several questions rather than giving answers, this is what I like about cinema,” Zaman explains.

Letter to the King won the top Dragon Award at the Goteborg Film Festival as well as the Best Screenplay Award in the feature film competition at the Carthage Film Festival. It was also screened in its eighth edition of the Panorama of European Film in Egypt.

When asked generally about the refugee crisis, Zaman told Ahram Online that “as long as there is war, there will be refugees. And there will be a father-son story, and the characters will continue to exist among us, like Siyar and Mirza... I see them [refugees] as people who have something to add to the society. I was one of them. I was a refugee but later became a filmmaker and I could tell stories and look more positively to people that have left everything, but dignity, to find a better life.”

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