Before Snowfall: An Interview with Hisham Zaman


As many as 5,000 women and girls are victims of honour killings every year worldwide, often killed by members of their own family.

Many honour killings have also taken place in Europe and America including the murder of Fadime Şahindal, a case that attracted a great deal of attention in the media. Şahindal was a Kurdish immigrant who moved to Sweden from Turkey at the age of 7 and was shot by her own father at the age of 26 because she rejected an arranged marriage and chose her own partner.

Honour based violence is one of the themes in the award-winning movie Before Snowfall (original: Før snøen faller) directed by the Kurdish-Norwegian instructor Hisham Zaman. Zaman is trained at The Norwegian Film School and has received numerous awards for his films and short films, including the well-known short film Bawke from 2005 (watch it here).

In Before Snowfall we follow a 16-year-old boy, Siyar, who embarks on a journey across borders in order to find his older sister Nermin who flees the night before her arranged wedding. The desperate flight does not only impact his sister’s life; it is also a turning point in Siyar’s life who sets out from a little village in Iraqi Kurdistan and travels across Europe to Norway with the intention of finding and killing his sister. As the frames keep rolling we soon realise that this movie is not just about killing in the name of honour; it is also a portrayal of a simple village-boy and his personal transformation as he makes new discoveries about life, love and loneliness.

Almost every actor in the movie, including the main characters Siyar and his friend Evin, are amateur actors. They have no theatrical background and have therefore a huge role in giving the scenes a natural flow. The movie has been shot over a period of 2 years and in 4 different countries but the preparation for it has taken much longer time.

Below is our interview with the director Hisham Zaman at the Buster Film Festival 2014 in Copenhagen.

Why does honour still play such a big role in the Middle Eastern societies?

Hisham Zaman: Honour is a universal thing but some countries put more importance into it than others. It is difficult for some societies to change and to accept change. In Siyar’s village, the old system is affecting the young people much more than what the young people can affect it back. They can only fight back when they break the circle. By allowing us to film this movie in Kurdistan, the government showed us that they are against honour killing and the bad influence it has on the people. In Europe people think that the victim of honour killing is always a woman. It is. But I wanted to show that the man is a victim too. Siyar is actually a nice person, he is not bad. He tries but the force of the old tradition is so strong that he cannot be free and so he, too, becomes a victim.

How long did it take to produce the movie and how did you get to find your main character, Siyar?

Hisham Zaman: I got the idea in 2006 and the film premiered in 2013. I used a lot of time to visit the places and do research. For a long time we tried to find the right boy to play Siyar. We found a boy who was very interesting and whom we liked but he had theatrical background and I was not a hundred percent sure if he was the right person to play Siyar. A week before the shooting of the movie, everything was ready, the production and everything, and I told the production team that I wanted to use a day to look for another boy. “We have looked everywhere, how are you going to find him in 24 hours?” they asked me, but I said that I would try anyway. We already had a boy and if I couldn’t find anyone else, we would use him. 

Kurdistan is a modern society that is connected to Europe and the rest of the world, but I wanted to go into this small village because the society there had made an impression on me. I went to Zaxo where I was shown pictures of 22 boys. None of them were Siyar. I was then taken to a green house where 7 boys were working. They were all standing like soldiers, ready to be part of the movie. But none of them were Siyar either. Then I saw another boy further away working for the green house, and I found him interesting. I asked if I could film him in a situation and he played a small scene with another man. He was a very shy boy; he wasn’t like he is in the movie. I asked him to sing a song or tell a joke. He couldn’t even look me in the eyes. I showed the scene to the crew and they also liked him. So that was how we found Siyar (Abdullah Taher). 

Is the movie based on a true story?

Hisham Zaman: The movie is based on a simple idea about two young people on the border between two countries. I wanted people to experience the dilemma between a boy and a girl. It was also important to find the boy a goal. What would it be; love or something else? The movie is not only about honour, it is somethingmuch more than that. It is about the loneliness of a boy that embarks on a mission. It is about his journey and his choices. What moves him? He feels betrayed because his sister chooses love over family. But soon he will make almost the same journey as his sister. He will also betray someone for the same reason.

Siyar is interesting because he is a boy in a world where he is much more vulnerable and where he has to prove that he is a man. He is from a place where war is a part of the daily life and school is not an opportunity. But he still has the same dreams as any other boy at his age.  He likes to play football, for example. But people have high expectations from him, expectations that should not be expected by a boy.

You have used many small but interesting details in the movie that follow Siyar along his journey. Everything from the choice of song that plays in the taxi, the amulet-necklace protecting Siyar from the evil eye, the pictures on the wall at the place he stays in Istanbul. The places he visits are also very realistic, but are they real? Do they have a background story?

Hisham Zaman: The places are real and the refugees playing in the movie are also real refugees who wanted to be a part of the movie. I used a lot of time to research these places and talk with people. All the scenes of escape, the scenes of them running through the woods or crossing the water with a small boat, all these are based on real experiences that smugglers working in the field shared with me. The other details you mention are also important because I myself, when I was Siyar’s age, was a refugee. So I know Istanbul and these places very well and it was interesting for me to use the things I remember from that time in the movie.