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EIFF 2013: ‘Before Snowfall’ follows its protagonist on a nuanced, multicultural journey

Before Snowfall

Before Snowfall
Written by Kjell Ola Dahl and Hisham Zaman
Directed by Hisham Zaman
Norway, 2012

Hisham Zaman’s directorial debut opens with Siyar (Abdullah Taher), a 16-year-old boy from Kurdish Iraq, being wrapped from head to toe in cling film. He is preparing to submerge himself in an oil tanker in an attempt to illegally cross the border into Turkey, making for Istanbul where he believes his runaway sister, Nermin (Bahar Ozen), is hiding with her lover. She has escaped an arranged marriage, bringing dishonour to the family, and Siyar has accepted the responsibility of resolving the situation. He embarks on a dangerous journey, replete with perilous border crossings and unfamiliar environments, with the intention of killing Nermin and restoring his family to honour.

Despite being filmed with a cast of non-professional actors, Before Snowfall is an extremely slick production and features some captivating performances, particularly from the lead, Taher. His Siyar is intense, stoic and mature beyond his years, remaining sympathetic regardless of his unwavering determination to carry out the murder. His journey exposes the black-and-white brutality of the moral system he grew up with but he always remains at least partially loyal to it, and Taher renders the changes his character undergoes with subtlety and restraint. Along the way, Siyar forms a touching relationship with a younger girl, Evin (Suzan Ilir), who draws out his naiveté and earns his compassion as she struggles with a situation comparable to his own.

Zaman’s ambitious film is shot across four countries, tracking Siyar as he travels from Iraq to Oslo, via Istanbul and Berlin. Marius Matzow Gulbrandsen’s cinematography is spectacular, evoking parallels between the contrasts in the physical landscapes and Siyar’s emotional and psychological evolution. His connection to the places he travels through are derived from his own culture and tradition; there is always someone around who respects his family and is prepared to help him out. The depictions of Kurdish Iraq are beautifully nostalgic, almost childishly innocent, with vast, golden mountains and lush groves of trees, a stark departure from the harrowing task he must undertake. As he gets further from home, both in terms of his geographic location and state of mind, he becomes increasingly alienated from the scenery, which culminates in the harsh snow of the Norwegian winter.

Before Snowfall

The underground Kurdish diaspora and related smuggling trade is depicted unglamorously, as a world of uncertain loyalties and half-formed relationships, violent neighbourhoods and seedy hotels. Siyar’s relationship with Evin appears remarkable in this context, given the ease with which it could have fallen apart. The serious issues, honour killing and gender inequality, are dealt with unsentimentally, primarily non-verbally, demonstrating through action and gesture the conflict between the liberalism of western Europe and the stringent morals of the Middle East. It could have ended predictably, but Zaman’s powerful conclusion is measured and thought-provoking, opening up more questions than it resolves.

Before Snowfall is a complex and superbly-written debut, a coming-of-age tale set against a background of austere cultural tradition. The plot is gripping and, while it could have been paced slightly better, takes us on a provocative, multicultural journey, filled with emotional catharsis. But what is most impressive is Zaman’s dramatic restraint and detached approach, enabling him to explore a personal and highly-charged story through nuanced progression, without it ever becoming overwrought.

Rob Dickie

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