Ali Abbasi’s supernatural drama Gräns (Border) has just won the prestigious Un Certain Regard Prize, at the 71st edition of the Festival de Cannes. The Cannes-favourite is the Iranian-Danish filmmaker’s second feature, selected out of 18 international films, by the Un Certain Regard Jury presided by Academy-award winning actor, Benicio del Toro.
Gräns is based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novella, that tells the story of a customs officer (Eva Molander) with a psychic gift for smelling human guilt and catching smugglers. Lindqvist is best known as the writer for Swedish horror film hit, Let the Right One In. He wrote the screenplay for Gräns with Abbasi and Isabella Eklöf.
I AM FILM sat with Ali Abbasi prior to his win and courtesy of Film i Väst, for an interview about Gräns, his perspective on identity politics, and his egoless approach to filmmaking.
What was so personal and important about the story behind Gräns?
AB: Well, you know, it really grew very organically from its origins of me being interested in the works of the writer John Ajvide Lindqvist. We sat and had a chat and I was offered to choose (material) from his work.
I heard about this specific story, maybe, about 10 years ago. Somebody told me about it at a party, when I was talking about John’s work with them. They said, “You know, he has this really off-beat novel that you should read, that’s about this woman who works at customs and can smell how people feel,” and I was like, “Wow, that’s whack.”
I had it in the back of my mind for a couple of years. When we sat and talked about it, they (my collaborators) said, “Yeah, it could be an option, but it’s been written 15 years ago. It’s a small novel and it’s not very film friendly.”
It turned out that they were right because a lot of the novel is in diary form, and in Tina’s head. You get to know her as you hear her thoughts and her feelings, which is great, but on the other hand, you have to build up a cinematic language for that—from scratch. So, we were a couple of years in development.
You chose such an interesting female protagonist, which is true for many of your films. As a male director, did you have to do anything differently, in order to effectively portray a female perspective?
AB: I think the most boring thing to me would be to make a movie about an Iranian guy living in Sweden and Denmark, and having artistic worries about everyday life. Hopefully, I would never do that. I have my worries. I have my thoughts. I have my things that I want to express and explore.
But I think, the further it is from me, the further the body, and the situation, and the world is—from my own—the further my fantasy and imagination can run with it.
That is the part that I love, and that is why I am doing what I do because I want to explore this parallel universe.
I’ve been doing quite a few, I think, almost all of my movies, have had female leads. I am not a great feminist director. I’m not fighting for women’s rights or anything—not that I’m against it—but, I think it also has to do with having difficulty understanding men, sometimes. I mean, understanding in the way of; seeing the nuances and emotions of their everyday experience.
For some reason, my great friend and co-writer, Isabella Eklöf, has it the other way around. For her, she has this thing where it’s easier for her to understand men. I think that has to do with: when you see things from the outside, you can see patterns, structures, and thoughts, that become more clear.
They say that filmmaking is like birthing a child. What did you learn from the birth of this movie?
AB: It was a painful birth. What I really learned was: that I’m not a very optimistic guy. I don’t have the most sunshine view of life. But then, last night, a guy ran to me in the middle of the street and hugged me, and said, “I’m from Moscow and this is the best thing I’ve ever seen!”
And I’m thinking, “Ok, well, they say this is a half-dying medium (movies) under all sorts of pressure, and people are talking about it as if it’s all already done like it’s the opera of the 21st century. But, there are still moments that you can really, truly, get to people.”
I used to not really think about audiences that much—not actively. I was thinking, “If I think too much about the audience, I’m going to ruin my work. I’m going to adapt it to the tastes of everybody, and then, I won’t have my own taste.”
You were talking about how a lot of your movies have had female characters, and you say that you understand females better, as a vehicle for your ideas. Is there a mirroring of you in your movies?
AB: To be honest with you, I’m not a strong believer in identity politics. I think that it’s great that we have feminist movements, gay rights movements; things to describe and to express how minorities are short-changed.
But, at the end of the day, I think social classes are a much stronger marker; that’s where people are really being affected, and that’s the backbone of the whole system for us. I don’t have a strong sense of gender.
But, I do think, for some reason, it just tends to be easier for me to express my thoughts and my feelings, through a female character with female actors.
When you make a movie and you’re in the cutting room, when do you know when it’s ready? What creates artistic success for you?
AB: It’s really difficult because that moment might never come, because I’m so dismissive about my own movies, and so is my editor—she is even more so. We are sitting there and throwing things in the trash and saying:“This is shit, why are we even doing this?” And then, it’s like, “It might not be that bad,” and then, you find this moment, “This is ok, this is also ok,” and then, after a while, you have enough of those moments, that you have a generally better feeling.
This comes once you do the editing, once you do the sound, once you do the effects, once you do the visual grading, and they build up like layers. When it’s almost near the end, you can sit down and watch the movie, and say, “Well, we didn’t do that bad after all.”
If you had any advice for filmmakers, what advice would you give?
AB: I think if people work hard, that would be the best plan because talent is obviously a part of it, and inspiration. But, working hard is such a huge part of it. I think if you insist on the craziest and most fucked up project and idea—it’s going to happen—one way or the other.
Following critical success at Cannes, the North American rights to Gräns were sold to independent US distributor, Neon; co-founded by former Radius-TWC chief Tom Quinn and Alamo Drafthouse chief Tim League. Neon rose to prominence after securing the distribution rights to Oscar-winning and box-office hit I, Tonya.
Gräns was produced by Meta Film Stockholm, Spark Film & TV and Kärnfilm, in co-production with Meta Film Denmark, Film i Väst, SVT and Copenhagen Film Fund. “Border” was also backed by Swedish Film Institute, Nordisk Film & TV Fond, Danish Film Institute, MEDIA and Eurimages.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed by I AM FILM interviewees are their own.
About the auteur
Ali Abbasi (born 1981, Iran) has a background in literature with several short stories published in Persian. In 2002 he gave up his studies at Tehran Polytechnic University and travelled to Europe, where he finally settled in Stockholm, Sweden to study architecture. In 2007, Ali graduated with a BA in architecture and subsequently enrolled at the National Film School of Denmark, where he studied directing. Ali’s First feature Shelley premiered in the Panorama section of the 2016 Berlinale.