Post-national film and the Scandinavian Other – the deconstruction of borders in Border (Gräns, Ali Abbasi, 2018)
Winner of the Swedish award Guldbaggen for best motion picture, winner of Un certain regard in Cannes, Sweden’s Oscar nominee, Oscar nominated for best make-up… Ali Abbasi’s debut feature film Border (Gräns, 2018) must be considered one of last year’s biggest Swedish success. Based on a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the film tells the tale of border police Tina who has the special ability of smelling out fear and guilt. Tina has a rather odd look (one might say ugly) with rough features, scrappy hair and a strange scar above her buttocks. When she meets the similarly rough Vore she learns the truth about her heritage – that she’s a troll.
The word border connotes a separation, a distinction of what or who belongs to either side of a drawn line. There are borders between countries, separating geographical regions, and borders that seek to separate one set of beings from another; man from animal, man from woman. In this essay, I argue that Border calls out the construction of these borders, on both a narrative and a structural level. Equal parts folklore fantasy and social realism, the film offers commentary on the historically rooted idea of the Scandinavian Other, toying with post-colonial concepts of normalcy and assimilation. On a narrative level, I read the film as echoing a Swedish history of oppressing minorities, and on a structural level I make the case that the film challenges the notion of national cinema, tying into a historical debate and actualising the term post-national.
Others in a Swedish context have historically been Sámi, Tornedalians, Jews, Romani people, and during the last decades, a wider range of immigrants. Let me be clear: I in no way intend to compare minorities in Sweden to trolls. Abbasi has made an entirely unique, artistic saga of alienation and belonging that however lends itself to thematical comparisons.
Sweden has a dark history of oppressing minorities. In her chapter of the anthology Whiteness and Postcolonialism in the Nordic Region, Anne Heith discusses the treatment of Sámi and Tornedalian people. Both minority groups have lived in Scandinavia for hundreds of years, predating the so-called ethnic Swedes. Tornedalen is a region that stretches between Sweden and Finland, and its people were brutally separated across the border between the countries as Finland gained independence from Sweden in 1917. The group have a language of their own, Meänkieli, but were forced by the state on both sides of the border to assimilate to either Sweden or Finland through education and language. The Sámi people live in the northern parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia and also have several different languages of their own. In Sweden, they have been forced to partly assimilate through language in a similar fashion. Both groups have been seen as inferior to the ethnic Swede and therefore mistreated in various ways. The notion of inferiority was fuelled by, and fuelled, the establishing of the world’s first institution of race biology in Uppsala 1922, that set up to divided humans into a hierarchy of races. A particularly chilling scene from Amanda Kernell’s recent film Sámi Blood (2016) illustrate how scientists from Uppsala came to Sámi communities to conduct studies on the Sámi. A couple of years after the establishment of the institute, in 1928, prime minister Per Albin Hansson coined the term Folkhemmet (“the people’s home”), a metaphor that came to inform the development of the Swedish welfare state in the following decades. The people’s home promised to provide its citizens with basic safety and equality.
The term has an ambiguousness to it, however. It visualises a border, namely the threshold to the house. In that it works as a compelling image of the patriarchal “assimilate or get excluded”-scheme that minorities were forced under. The establishing of a house is conditioned on an outside, just like ideas of Normalcy is conditioned on ideas of Otherness.
In Border, Tina articulates a feeling of alienation to society in the scene where she explains to her “father” how she’s been considered ugly and different all her life. When she learns the truth from Vore, confirmed by her father, she seems as distressed as relieved. Her real parents – trolls, also – were taken into a mental hospital and experimented on, her tail was cut off, and the truth was kept from Tina all her life. The cutting of the tail lends itself to comparisons to the forced sterilisations that were conducted in Sweden up to the 1970s on people who were seen as deviant. Up to the point when Tina meets Vore, she’s somewhat assimilated in the Swedish society: she has a job, some sort of platonic relationship with a man living in her house, she drives a car and eats regular food, albeit with a strong sense of alienation. Vore, on the other hand, refuses to assimilate. He’s a rebel of sorts, staying true to his nature and his needs, with a strong sense of injustice from dominant society which he sets out to take revenge on. By refusing to assimilate, Vore refuses to submit to the ideal of normalcy and to the division between human and animal, but also to the division between man and woman, as indicated in a highly original sex scene. Dominant society tries to – but cannot any longer – force Tina and Vore into categories of normalcy, despite the fact that they are neither human, animal, man or woman in the traditional sense, but something altogether different. The end scene, where Tina holds a baby troll, suggests that she (together with Vore, perhaps) will be forced to exclusion from society since nothing in the film hints at the possibility of living outspoken as a troll in dominant Swedish society.
Trolls are a recurrent mythological figure not only in Swedish folklore but all over Scandinavia. Trolls were understood as a threat, deceitful, ugly and greedy. Vore is a troll form Finland. Or at least, he has a Finnish accent and seems to be based in Finland but travels around. However ironic the fact that Tina works as a police woman maintaining the Swedish border to its neighbouring countries, Vore is not bothered by borders – his troll community stretches over (at least) two nations (Sweden and Finland). The construction of geographical borders seems to be yet another way to force the trolls in the film into categorisations that are not relevant to them. I do make the case that the film echoes a Swedish history of oppressing minorities, but part of that oppressive history involves forcing people into constructed geographical regions. If anything, Scandinavia as a region seems more apt to discuss than Sweden as a nation in relation both to minorities like the Tornedalians, the Sámi, and the trolls in the film.
This blurring of national borders also reflects in the production. Is Border a Swedish film? It is certainly understood so; the pivotal example being that it was Sweden’s Oscar nominee. Ali Abbasi is Swedish with Iranian decent. The actors are Swedish and Finnish. The film is recorded in Sweden with funds from the Swedish film institute and the Council of Europe (to mention some). Both Sweden and Denmark are noted as production countries. More relevant yet: both Abbasi and co-writer Isabella Eklöf studied at the film school in Copenhagen. In a widely read article in the film magazine FLM, Eklöf (in connection to the release of her controversial debut feature Holiday (2018)) claimed that Sweden has large issues with self-censorship and moralism that Denmark doesn’t. Both Border and Holiday have been hailed as artistic and unusually bold debut features, and the text invites to a debate about and an examination of what passes through Swedish film schools and what doesn’t. This opens to another dimension in the discussion about national film: can a film be considered national if its creative and artistic freedom derives from another country? Are ideas bound by national borders?
In the silent film era, Swedish film was often seen as soulful as compared to other national cinemas. Films like A Man There Was (Terje vigen, Victor Sjöström 1917), The Outlaw and His Wife (Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru, Victor Sjöström 1918) and The Saga of Gösta Berling (Gösta Berlings saga, Mauritz Stiller 1924) were staged in nature in innovative ways. This was initially praised by an international audience, but with Hollywood gaining dominance of the film market in the 1920s, perceived as provincial and old fashioned. As a response to the expansionism of Hollywood, or Film America as it was called then, Film Europa was formed – a pan-European collaborative effort to stand up against Film America’s market hegemony through shaping an equivalent European film industry. Film America was seen as culturally colonising Europe. This not only referred to the large import of American films, but of American production in Europe and more important yet: in the established film language. It was argued that European spectators became “temporary American citizens” through American film. The historical discussion that Andrew Higson and Richard Maltby account for in their text echoes a still ongoing debate about culture imperialism and cultural diversity and is interesting in the way that it conceptualises ideas of national and transnational cinema. In the effort to create a Film Europa, the idea was to recognise the culturally specific to different nations, but at the same time recognising that borders are malleable in the ambition to transform these ideas into a pan-European corporate strategy.
In his text “The Limiting Imagination of National Cinema”, Higson continues to explore the concept of national cinema and asks whether the concept is useful. He points out several problems with the definition, initially by calling out the definition of a nation and national identity. Is national identity fixed? He points out a bit of a paradox in the idea of national film. On the one hand, national film is expected to reflect on a common identity and a cultural heritage within a fixed nation, but on the other hand, it has to look outwards in order to define the nationally specific in relation to the international. The outspoken goal of state funded national film has since Film Europa often been to produce counter-narratives, cinema that distances itself from dominant film culture in the search for more local forms of expression. Historically, there has been an ambition to counter Hollywood. Higson goes on to argue, however, that state funding does not guarantee independent film, state policies merely have a “cosmetic” effect. He makes the case that national cinema has often been confused with counter cinema or critical cinema, but that it is something different than state funded national cinema. Rather, as the case of Film Europa shows, national film has a tendency to adjust to a conventional film language in its ambition to reach an international audience.
Higson argues that there are two ways in which films can be understood as transnational products. The first in its production. In the global capitalist economy of today, there is often some sort of exchange between countries in production, involving everything from actors and personnel, shooting locations, production companies and funding. The other way that films are transnational are in the distribution and reception. In the market of flows films travel and find markets outside of the national. New audiences bring new meaning into the films they see. Higson concludes that the concept is in many ways irrelevant, but that is opens for other relevant discussions and would be unwise to ignore since it has taken part in shaping the way we understand different cinema cultures. Elsaesser agrees that national cinema has lost its defining character and is in fact a weak determining factor of the outcome of a film. He prefers to speak of hybridity and uses the term post-national.
Abbasi plays with national stereotypes, not least in the depiction of Tina and Vore as free spirited and close to nature, which echoes the national stereotype that Olsson derives from Swedish silent cinema. By working with folklore, Abbasi does this somewhat ironically, or at least self-consciously. Border fits well into Higson’s concept of transnational cinema. As elaborated on earlier, the production stretches beyond the scope of Sweden. The film has also found an international audience and been critically acclaimed. Peter Bradshaw writes in his review in The Guardian that: “in all its freakiness, Ali Abbasi’s film Border is something between a superhero origin myth, a cop procedural and a body-horror romance”. Howard Fishman writes in The New Yorker that “Border may be the strangest, most beguiling film that I have ever seen” and critics at Variety and New York Times agree that the film is unlike anything they’ve seen, that it is strange and bizarre. The Swedish critic Jacob Lundström notes that the film has an international quality, not least in its horror elements, a genre not typical for Sweden. This goes to show that Border plays well with an audience outside of Sweden, while also standing out in its strangeness. The post-colonial notion of Otherness can therefore be applied to the reception of the film itself: it being a strange cousin to mainstream cinema, but in this case, neither excluded or forced to assimilate. A good example of counter-cinema, one might argue. Its strangeness is indicative of the fact that the film was not produced by dominant Hollywood, where profit is secured by “playing it safe”. So though not a “national film”, at least it was made possible with the ideas behind national cinema.
With this essay, I have tried to show the various ways in which the film Border deconstructs the notion of borders by tying the film into a historical debate of national film as well as a post-colonial understanding of Otherness. On a narrative level, this involves the depiction of Tina and Vore as beings that cannot be forced into categorisations of gender and species. Society’s denial of their true nature and their forced assimilation reflects a Swedish history of forcing the racialised Other to adjust to ideas of Normalcy. Moreover, the film doesn’t play into a certain genre. Rather, it is a mashup of horror, social realism, fantasy and crime. On a structural level, the film is understood to be Swedish, and does reflect on both Swedish cultural heritage and history. However, the influx of ideas, funding, actors, story-telling modes and address in the production and resulting film testify to a reality where national identity is not fixed but negotiable. In fact, to add on to Higson’s definition of the transnational film, I would like to make the case that immaterial factors such as the flow of ideas, inspiration and meaning-making when it comes to production makes the most compelling argument against the claim that film can be defined in national terms. Ideas are not defined by borders. More suitable yet, I would like to use the term post-national rather than transnational to describe Border. It is not so much an exchange between different countries as a hybrid; a hypnotising, daring blurring of borders.
Bradshaw, Peter. ”Border review: into the woods for a body-horror romance”. The Guardian 7/3/2019. Controlled 22/3/2019. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/mar/07/border-review-ali-abbasi.
Böjesen, Björn. ”Troll spred rädsla i Norden”. Illustrerad vetenskap historia 5/2/2018. Controlled 22/3/2019. https://varldenshistoria.se/samhalle/mytologi/troll-spred-radsla-i-norden.
Eklöf, Isabella. ”Isabella Eklöf: Sverige har ett reellt problem med självcensur”. FLM 25/10/2018. Controlled 22/3/2019. http://flm.nu/2018/10/isabella-eklof-sverige-har-ett-reellt-problem-med-sjalvcensur/.
Fishman, Howard. ”I accidentally walked into ‘Border’, and it kind of changed my life”. The New Yorker 28/12/2018. Controlled 22/3/2019. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/i-accidentally-walked-into-border-and-it-kind-of-changed-my-life.
Hansson, Sven Ove. ”Rashygien i Sverige”. Vetenskap och folkbildning. Controlled 22/3/2019. https://www.vof.se/folkvett/ar-1992/nr-1/rashygienen-i-sverige/.
Kenny, Glenn. “Review: sniffing out guilt in strangely engaging ‘Border’”. New York Times 25/10/2018. Controlled 22/3/2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/25/movies/border-review.html.
Lundström, Jacob. ”Ali Abbasi och den svenska filmens internationella makeover”. FLM 10/5/2018. Controlled 22/2/2019. http://flm.nu/2018/05/ali-abbasis-grans-och-den-svenska-filmens-internationella-makeover/.
Simon, Alissa. ”Film Review: ’Border’”. Variety 11/5/2018. Controlled 22/3/2019. https://variety.com/2018/film/reviews/border-review-grans-1202807503/.
Svensk filmdatabas. ”Gräns”. Controlled 22/3/2019. http://www.svenskfilmdatabas.se/sv/item/?type=film&itemid=79508#companies.
Uppsala universitetsbibliotek. ”Rasbiologiska institutets arkiv”. Controlled 22/3/2019. https://www.ub.uu.se/hitta-i-vara-samlingar/verk-och-samlingar-i-urval/rasbiologiska-institutet/.
Heith, Anne. “Aesthetics and Ethnicity: The Role of Boundaries in Sámi and Tornedalian Art”. In Whiteness and Postcolonialism in the Nordic Region. Edited by Kristín Loftsdóttir and Lars Jensen. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2012, 159-173.
Higson, Andrew. ”The Limiting Imagination of National Cinema”. In Cinema and Nation. Edited by Mette Hjort and Scott MacKenzie. London and New York: Routledge, 2000, 63-74.
Higson, Andrew and Richard Maltby. ”’Film Europe’ and ’Film America’: An Introduction”. In “Film Europe” and “Film America”: Cinema, Commerce and Cultural Exchange, 1920-1939. Edited by Andrew Higson and Richard Maltby. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1999, 1-22.
Elsaesser, Thomas. European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005.
Olsson, Jan. ”National Soul/Cosmopolitan Skin: Swedish Cinema at a Crossroad”. In Silent Cinema and the Politics of Space. Edited by Jennifer Bean et al. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014, 245-269.