Border manages to adapt an unadaptable Swedish folklore tale for the big screen

An interview with Ali Abbasi, the Iranian ex-pat who took on the task of filming a short story by the author of Let the Right One In.

Eero Milonoff and Eva Melander in Border

Ali Abbasi’s Border is a peculiar beast in many respects. It’s a film with fantasy elements that isn’t really fantasy at all, a film about Swedish folklore directed by an Iranian ex-pat, a genre film without clear genre, an adaptation of an unadaptable short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist (Let the Right One In). The short story takes the form of diary entries — surely the most inward and difficult-to-adapt style of narrative prose.

“This was back in 2012, when I first started talking to the author,” says Abbasi. “I read the story and really liked it. He said, ‘Oh, you’re welcome to do it, but it’s not very adaptation-friendly,’ which I completely agreed with. You need a minimal plot to set the story in motion when you adapt, and that minimal plot was really minimal in this case. One of the things that really got me going was that I really liked this story and I really liked the characters, but it was probably never going to be adapted into a movie because it’s too much trouble! (laughs)

“Mind you, there’s another thing in it… Of course, it would be much easier to have a 400-page novel with lots of plot that I could kind of clean down to something. That would be the usual way of adaptation, but on the other hand, when you have something like this that was maybe 40 pages… a lot of those pages about her in her life and what’s going on in her head. In that sense, you really get to know a character very well. Knowing the character so well is a great way to build a world around her, so it wasn’t really off the mark in that way.

“In a sense, the whole adaptation process for this one was to make everything that is interior to her exterior. I knew what she would be thinking, and I was thinking that I don’t want a voiceover to show what she’s thinking, but show situations where you would probably think that she’s thinking those thoughts. I tried to demonstrate her thoughts and feelings with exterior actions. That was the process.”

Tina (Eva Melander) works for the Swedish border agency. She’s unusually good at her job because she can smell fear and easily suss out guilty parties. What we know but most others do not know (including Tina) is that Tina is a troll — somewhat pig-like in appearance and possessing supernatural abilities that few question. It’s not until she meets a fellow troll named Vore (Eero Milonoff) that Tina finds out the truth about herself, which sets her on an entirely new life path.

As audiences, we’re used to fantasy being an epic fresco full of rich backstories, something that Border pointedly does not provide. Perhaps it owes a little bit to the place of trolls in Swedish folklore, but according to Abbasi, it also has a lot to do with his own personal taste.

“I have a tendency to underestimate audiences,” he continues. “I have to constantly remind myself that these guys have been fed all kinds of crazy shit on YouTube. I have been talking to a lot of critics and journalists and some audiences who think this movie is strange and bizarre. I think, yeah, it might be, but if you really want to see something strange, go on YouTube. There is so much outrageous stuff out there that this is so much more logical in comparison. In some ways, I think it really makes a huge difference making a movie nowadays or in the ’90s, before YouTube. People now are so fucking trained in all sorts of media and motion picture logic. They’re almost like one step ahead of me — I have to almost catch up with them now. So that’s why I think you don’t need five things to establish a character, you need one (laughs)

“The thing is, nobody comes to cinema to learn the history of troll-dom,” he continues. “At least, that’s not what I’m thinking people come to watch. I always wonder what kind of movies I want to make, and my first sense is always that I want to make the kinds of movies I like to see myself. I wanna go see something that has some kind of nerve or some kind of rawness and some kind of intellectual depth and complexity and playfulness and whatnot. And those things don’t really have anything to do with the kind of backstory that people can become obsessed with. For the kind of the cinema I’m interested in, this kind of framework cinema doesn’t really cut it — and it doesn’t help me either.”

The idea of the troll as a mythological figure is a very Swedish one, which makes it all the more interesting that it’s being explored in the film by a director who was born and raised in Iran.

“I remember they said this about Ang Lee when he did The Ice Storm,” says Abbasi. “They said that only a foreigner could make such an American movie. I think that’s kind of how it works with me and Scandinavian cinema and Scandinavian culture. I hadn’t been exposed to Scandinavian culture until I came here in my early 20s. I think sometimes you just experience the world in an exotic way. This is something that is being increasingly frowned upon, especially in a post-colonial world. If I was white and I had moved to Morocco and said how much I loved riding camels and drinking tea and was really living that fantasy out, it would probably be problematic. But that’s basically what I did coming to Scandinavia — I lived out the fantasy of Scandinavia as an exotic space. I think it makes a lot of sense for cinema, because in cinema you have this sense of a topic’s relation to reality. You sample reality as a kind of wish fulfilment thing — it’s like a fetish, it’s not connected to reality. In that sense, there are some interesting parallels between these two things: how exotism works and how cinema works. (laughs)”

“My point is I don’t think I have deep knowledge of Scandinavia or the fact that the film comes across as being Scandinavian because of my deep knowledge,” he continues. “Maybe not knowing that much, or not knowing minute details, makes me able to see it as this exotic, magical place where everything can happen. If a person from Scandinavia wants to do that, they have to do it in their own way — they probably know that forests aren’t that magical. I don’t know that, I’m a foreigner. I just assume that forests are magical! (laughs)” ■

Border is in theatres now. Watch the trailer here: