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Twisting Our World: Ali Abbasi Discusses “Border”

The Iranian-born director talks about adaptation, ethics, and the role of cinema as surrealism in his unconventional love story, “Border.”
Ali Abbasi's Border (2018) is having its exclusive online premiere on MUBI in the United Kingdom. It is showing from July 12 – August 10, 2019.
Behind the scenes of Border. Photo by Christian Geisnæs.
Border is a film you will never forget. Not only because it’s a mythology-drenched love story, nor on the sole basis that Tina (Eva Melander) can literally smell people’s feelings; but because the film will leave a solid mark in imagery you cannot unsee, while enchanting you with the magic of interpersonal connection. A modern-day fairy tale, Ali Abbasi’s third project after the short film M for Markus (2011) and the feature Shelley (2016) is based on a short story by acclaimed writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, yet the director explores cinema’s dimensions in adapting the script, exquisite cinematography, and gradual character development that all make Border a cohesive world of its own. Set on the political border of Sweden, the film follows officer Tina in her dysfunctional social surroundings until that metamorphic moment when she meets Vore (Eero Milonoff), who shares her ability to smell the shame of people, as well as her quirks of physical appearance. Their orbiting around each other culminates in affecting forest sequences where human, inhuman, and nature are one. On the side, Tina helps the local police to tail an investigation of an appalling crime, child trafficking and abuse. The crux between personal and public is a major theme in Border, as well as the existential boundaries that both separate and bring people closer. The interrelations of the self and the Other are masterfully explored by Abbasi, his world of myths and magical realism mirroring our ordinary world in such a way that we might just end up learning about ourselves in the end. 

NOTEBOOK: Border’s script is based on a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist (Let The Right One In), whose writings parallels mythical, social, and interpersonal worlds. What was appealing to you about that story in particular?
ALI ABBASI: For those who don’t know him, he’s a little bit like a Stephen King of Scandinavia, you know? He has this thing that he does this clever genre pieces that mix some problem that everybody can relate to, like some everyday issue, with some mythology or some genre element. It was the same with Let the Right One In, it was a piece about being a kid and being lonely and being marked, and then it was placed into a vampire movie, a vampire universe. We were supposed to collaborate at some point and I had different suggestions of what would make sense and reading different things that his agents sent me, and I remember this one was the piece that was least, like, clever, so to speak. There was not a lot of plots and twists and turns, and it was very much a lonely character piece, a very emotional one. The story is written almost like a diary and I thought that’s an interesting contrast to the whole troll mythology and that universe, because usually when you have that, you don’t have that “getting in the head of the troll” thing. 
NOTEBOOK: What about the building of the story? For example, the police investigation subplot which pierces the main narrative is not part of the novella itself. Was there any ethical implication to include that, since child abuse is an ethically controversial topic? 
ABBASI: Yes, I thought that one of the things that I was missing with the novella was a particular kind of darkness and emotional weight and in the way the short story ends, it seems like we’re off the hook very easily. Then I was thinking how to create this specific element and it grew out of this part of mythology that trolls…  
NOTEBOOK: …that they kidnap children? 
ABBASI: Yes, and the changeling thing. So I thought: “Okay, how would that look in our time?” How or why would you steal an infant, who would you sell it to? So that was a logical implication of updating that myth. You know, I was aware that it’s a sensitive issue and it goes dark places. I remember, I actually at some point thought that I’m just being dark for the sake of being dark, so I did some research: what does child abuse look like? I found this article about a busted paedophilia or child abuse gang that was like an “EU” for child abuse, every EU country had one representative in that group, a pan-European network of people and they were abusing infants as young as ten months old. So I thought, this is actually reality so it’s not that far-fetched. But again, you know, there is always this question when you do a movie about this kind of heavy, serious subject, which you only touch upon, you ask yourself, is it right to do so, do I have to take it very seriously and dedicate the movie to it, to go in-depth and so on. I think our answer was yes, it is a very serious subject and so forth, but this is not what the movie is about. I think we handled it respectfully, not in a too-deep domesticated way. 
NOTEBOOK: I agree, it strikes a thin balance of raising important issues while keeping it close to the film’s own workings. Border is very sensual, in the way it looks, the way it’s shot, the way it conveys human interaction—or in-human interaction, I should say [laughs]. Regarding adaptation, did you find it challenging to translate words to images, very tactile images?
ABBASI: This was my first time tackling adaptation because usually I write my own stuff. And I think my way of tackling this is try not to do a translation but try to get the ideas and recreate them in another form. For example, there are some things that, if you do them as direct translation from book to film, they won’t work, in my opinion. One of them being flashbacks. There were few flashbacks in the novella. Generally speaking, they are a literary device, they work well in literature but not in film. There are few people that can do it very well, mostly it doesn’t sit well, it feels like a foreign element to me, even when I see a film and I go: “Oh, this is a flashback.” In literature, it works to have, let’s say, a line like: “when he was five years old, this happened, or that happened…,” because you don’t see the main character, you imagine him as a child and in that way you keep the continuity. Whereas in film, there is another actor playing that five-year-old kid, so it’s actually not the character in your perception—at least my brain works like that. So, my point is that there are some elements that don’t do great when you translate them.
But then there are other stuff… For example, there were a few places where in the novella John Ajvide was talking about how Tina touches trees and desks, and things made of wood, to somehow keep her connection and attachment to nature, even if she’s in the middle of an office, or something. I think that we used that, I’m not sure if we had that image of her touching a desk, but it was the same idea. 
NOTEBOOK: I think, especially in the great forest sequences, showing Tina alone, or with Vore, they are all very oneiric and fairy-tale-like. When she digs her fingers in the dirt, it feels like there is more intimacy in that than in touching another human being. 
ABBASI: Right! Some of it also comes from Eva [Melander], when she did her first take in that forest. We talked about it, that sensuality and connection that her character has, and human beings don’t have and actually, what you see in that sequence, it’s her interpretation of that. It wasn’t necessarily in the script but it was just as another layer on top. Her contributions also, how she walks, how she talks… 
NOTEBOOK: She did an outstanding job, to say the least, especially given the routine of lengthy makeup sessions on a daily basis. Both Eva and Eero [Milonoff] spent hours a day in preparation, they also had to put on weight for the role. At the same time, the film conveys an astounding intimacy between them and nature, as well. How did you ensure that such degree of intimacy would be present with the actors’ transformed bodies and faces?
ABBASI: I think that’s where I couldn’t. I think none of us really knew how it would turn out. I mean, we did makeup tests but we never tried to stand on set, full makeup, to see how it worked. But I felt it during the casting, that Eva and Eero are great character actors and when you’re a character actor, one thing you’re particularly good at is keeping your emotional focus—it doesn’t matter if you have a funny costume on, or you’re playing a dog. You can have all sorts of extreme transformation but you still have this kind of emotional connection. That’s what I see as one of the key things of being a character-actor, that you can find even in the most far-off, bizarre, extreme situations, or characters, you can find that emotional core which you are a rear of. They had this, of course.
But there is something else also. I don’t know, maybe my next movie will be a bigger one, maybe it’s going to be English-language speaking, maybe not. But I’ll be thinking about, you know, part of what make it easier for us to have these great performances with Eva and Eero was also the fact that it was a small set. It was an intimate production, compared to how productions can be, still, we’re talking about 20–30 people there, right? But that is something else in comparison to a couple of hundred of people that work on a Hollywood production. I still think that there is this element of, you know, intimacy, where everybody comes to work but everybody knows everybody and after a while I think that really helps in terms of being comfortable and so forth. I don’t know how much of it but I think that’s the advantage of having a small team.
NOTEBOOK: Do you see this film as a fairy tale in some sense?
ABBASI: Yeah, you could say it’s a kind of a modern fairy tale, you can absolutely call it that way. Still I’m more interested in surrealism than fantasy.
NOTEBOOK: I get you there!
ABBASI: Right? I mean, there is nothing in Border that is like Harry Potter. I’m saying that because Harry Potter sends a signal, saying, “This is a parallel universe, that doesn’t have anything to do with our universe,” and everything has to be read metaphorically. Whereas, in Border and other movies like that, we try to say that, okay, this is actually our world, just expanded, or twisted.
NOTEBOOK: It’s like it has a veil of some sort, covering it, on top of reality, surrealism?
ABBASI: Yes. And I think the main difference for me it’s still emotionally or politically—or whatever—it’s still relevant to what we are experiencing and it doesn’t transport us to a third place. But I do think that when fairy tales work well, they have this power of… of Hans Christian Andersen for example, he was an absolute genius! Sometimes you read his fables or fairy tales and you feel like there is an essence of humanity there, you know. 
NOTEBOOK: Andersen himself lived a solitary life, and wasn’t that well-loved for his physical presence, more for his stories. He was way taller than people in his hometown, very skinny and a bit anti-social, so he was generally considered deformed and weird in a way. Maybe these kind of characters are precisely the ones that touch upon the human essence you mentioned.
ABBASI: Hmm, yes, absolutely! It’s also a fact that for a time he and Charles Dickens were, like, friends. Dickens admired him and what he wrote, and as we know, he was also the mega-star of his time. If I’m not mistaken, I think Charles Dickens invites Hans Christian Andersen to come to England, and then Andersen overstays and then gets kicked out [laughs]. But back to the fairy tale thing, I think I felt it during the shooting and by the reactions we got, that maybe there is a thirst, or vacuum there, for modern fairy tales, our-times fairy tales. This kind of a condensed picture that has to do with our life, this is not something that’s retro-leaning. 
NOTEBOOK: From your first film, M for Markus, and now, Border, your characters seem to be shaped, in a way, by their Other. What is it about the Other that you find useful or attractive as a story idea?
ABBASI: I really like this change of perspective. There have been a lot of characters that have been included in movies as villains, freaks, and so forth, and you always get to look at them from our point of view. I’m more interested in their perspective than ours because I also think that it also challenges our normality as well. Who has the legitimate point of view? I think that’s healthy but even if it wasn’t, I like that, I think it’s fascinating. 
NOTEBOOK: Maybe also transformative? Do you think it says anything about us as humans, converging the nonhuman, animalistic, mythological perspectives?
ABBASI: Yes! Okay, let’s say you go to a zoo for example, you look at these animals and it would be interesting to hear what they think, what they think about this guy eating an ice-cream, looking at you. It’s a very bizarre thing to do. Like, if I came closer, had an ice cream in my hand, and looked at you, without saying anything, it would be bizarre, right? 

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