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review

Stephanie CherI9.15.2022
Border: How Trolls Remind Us Of Our Origins
With Ali Abbasi’s Border, we’re called to restore our connection with ourselves, our roots, and our land.

Those of us who live in urban or even suburban communities are distanced from nature and natural settings—we see more buildings, roads, and automobiles than we do trees, creeks, or wildlife. For many of us living near or proximal to the city, we struggle to find natural landscapes that we can easily access. Parks are often a place we flock to, finding a breath of fresh air and stalks of green in the hubbub of the everyday asphalt and cement. Waking up to a power drill whirling, building the new condominium across the street is often more common than waking up to the sound of rustling leaves or birds and insects chirping. 

In Border, winner of Cannes’ Prix Un Certain Regard and directed by Ali Abbassi, this isn’t the case. Taking place in a lush Swedish forest, nature is alive and well, and we are steeped in its presence as it serves as the backdrop to much of the film. Tina (played by Eva Melander) owns a home in the forest and works as a customs officer for the Swedish border. With distinctive facial features, a scar above her tailbone, Lichtenberg figures scarring her face, and a keen sense of smell that enables her to smell fear, shame, and guilt (aspects that make her uniquely brilliant at her job as a customs officer), we’re aware that she’s different, set apart from the human species around her. Tina feels lost, regulated to the normative human expectations put in place around her, and she drifts through life, never fully engaging with others or even herself. In the moments of Tina communing with the earth, stillness presides, and we experience a sense of comfort in Tina that we haven’t seen before. It isn’t until later when Tina meets Vore (played by Eero Milonoff) that we, and Tina, discover that she’s not a human at all but rather, a troll living in a human world.

Based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s short story of the same name, Border plays on the edge of realism, romance, fantasy, and magical realism, and makes use of this blend of genres in unexpected ways. In a classic fantasy, the audience understands that the world created is set apart from reality but Border refuses to pigeonhole the trolls in a world outside of our own. They are a part of our world. They live amongst us, they’re our neighbors, they’re people we know and trust. We also understand that the trolls are forced to inhabit the margins of society — regulated and stuck in a world not created or welcoming to them. With this use of magical realism, the amalgamation of real and magical is blurred, allowing for a more inclusive and unbiased understanding into the lives and mindset of those who have been Othered.

For any person who is a minority and has experienced Otherness, Tina’s experience hits home. Being raised in a human world, Tina has never known anything else, and she is lost, unsure of her identity and self. She has a steady job, she has a partner, she has a home, but there’s a sense of ungrounding and melancholy that surrounds her. Returning home from work and walking into her home, she’s greeted by loud barks from her partner Roland’s show dogs and a blaring TV. She greets Roland and takes her socks and shoes off to head back out into the woods, barefoot. Immediately, the atmosphere changes. The noise of the human world dies away and the natural sounds and light of the forest take over, captivating us with Tina’s experience and presence. She walks gently, caressing trees as she passes by, before coming to a complete stop to stare in awe at the forest ahead of her. Light leaks through the forest canopy, and she greets a fox before heading deeper in the forest, her feet squishing into the moss on the forest floor. The camera cuts back and we’re granted with a wide shot of the forest, waiting for Tina’s approach.

This balance between chaos and peace is often depicted by the dueling atmospheres surrounding Tina and Roland. While we see Tina outside for most of the film, engaging with the natural world, Roland is nearly always inside, staying in a human-made world. Scenes with Roland represent the loudness of human life, the cacophony that we accustom ourselves to on a daily basis. With Roland, the TV is constantly on and he’s usually engaging with things outside of the present moment, whether it be his tablet, his phone, or his newspapers. With Tina, we typically see her in the forest, engaging with life in all of its forms  — a bubbling creek, whispers of the wind, humming of insects. The difference between the two atmospheres couldn’t be more different. With one, the modern world of disengagement and noise, distractions that take us away from the present. And with the other, the natural world of experience and stillness, a quality of life that we’ve forgotten and overlooked. 

Tina is acutely attuned to nature, touching the trees, moss, dirt, water with surreal intimacy and affection. These scenes allow us to witness our land and earth in ways we’ve lost, ways that have been severed through time, violence, and settler-colonialism. Many close-up shots of her touching and gripping the earth and water leave an impact on the viewer, and we’re left wondering if we’ve ever interacted with our natural landscape in that way before. Fearlessly, she digs her hands in the moss and dirt, and the life of the forest seems supple and alive in her hands. There’s a sensuality and connection that Tina has with the earth and these scenes remind us of things we’ve forgotten, basic notions about our origins and land that have allowed us to live as we do now. A lost connection to the land, cemented over and forgotten, brought back to life by a fantastical being’s affecting experience.

Border refuses to pigeonhole the trolls in a world outside of our own. They are a part of our world. They live amongst us, they’re our neighbors, they’re people we know and trust.

Trolls are rough, visceral. They present a hardened aspect of living, one entirely grounded and intentional yet mythological in existence. Films about trolls bring us closer to examining our natural settings in ways that many films can’t. We’re able to empathize more with the trolls than with other mythical creatures or even other humans, and Border does this exceptionally well through its poignant realism and storytelling. Because of the trolls’ human-like stature, it’s easy to accept them as part of us, yet because of our understanding of their different species-origin, we’re detached enough that we’re able to understand their sentiments and experience without bias. Tina is inherently connected with the earth and turns to nature every time her life in the human world becomes painful or isolating. When Tina engages with her natural environment, there’s a softness to her that shines through, a vulnerability that is teased out — nature, human, and troll become one. Her androgynous state and fantastical being allow us to connect with her and her experience with the earth in ways that a human-to-human connection can’t — too many biases, too many judgments, too much history. With Tina, with trolls, the slate is clean for us to reexamine our relationship with our land and our earth.

In one of the most striking scenes of the film, Tina and Vore have sex in the forest and it’s brutal, it’s lovely, it’s animalistic, and it’s heart-wrenching. We see Tina finally accepted as who she is, loved for who she is, and this experience takes place in the forest behind her home. When Tina finally releases the burdens and labels she’s carried all her life, deformed, ugly, a mistake, we see the complete exultation she feels in releasing these past traumas. Tears leak down her face when she finally allows her new state of being to be fully realized. Afterwards, the scene immediately cuts to Tina and Vore running naked in the forest and there’s a vibrancy in her like we’ve never seen before. Pure, unadulterated glee and joy emit from them, as they whoop, yelp, and growl their way through the forest, ending with an exuberant swim in the lake.

With Vore, life becomes different for Tina. Vore’s presence in Tina’s life becomes the catalyst to her awakening of self. He provides her an alternative reality, a truth that she’s been denied all her life by humans who simply didn’t know better, or didn’t want to know better. Vore is vengeful against the humans for the genocide they’ve done to the trolls. We learn that humans have killed off many of their species because of the medical experiments performed on them when they were first discovered. The only other trolls Vore knows of are in Finland, but he tells Tina that you have to let them find you, as they’re understandably untrusting of many. Tina has learned more about herself from Vore than from any other moment in her life, yet, she can’t fully subscribe to his ideology. She’s lived with humans all her life and has seen goodness come from them, but with her newfound identity, she’s unsure where she stands on the issue. 

This complexity of perspective is what makes Border feel so real. With each point-of-view from each character, the definition of “right” and “wrong” and “normalcy” changes. In this coming-of-age film, we see how perspective is different with each experience and how difficult it can be to create a truth of your own, to fully live in your world without fear. Border is a film that’s orbital in nature, combining many facets of living beings and examines the way we engage with one another and more importantly, ourselves.

Vore is adamant in his quest against the human race, but Tina isn’t completely sold on the idea, saying that there are good humans, like her father. But Vore asks, you mean the father who lied to you all your life? 

When Tina confronts her adopted father about this in his nursing home, demanding to know about her origins, he physically turns his back on her, choosing to continue to live with his deceit, ashamed of her questioning and of the truth. Tina runs out, sobbing, and the scene cuts to a decrepit forest, with trees felled and debris everywhere. This is the only time we see a forest in decay in the film, with all the other woodland shots being lush and serene. Tina falls to the floor, clutching the earth for protection and grounding, whimpering into the earth.

This moment is when everything changes for Tina, the final push she’s needed to let go of her previous beliefs and values.

In the final scenes of the film, Tina is alone. After rejecting her father’s attempts at reconciliation and after Vore reveals his involvement in a child trafficking scheme, Tina lives alone in her home, neither with any human or troll species. She seems to have been by herself for a while and much of her home and possessions seem to have become one with the forest. This fearlessness Tina has always had lives on in her decision to live a life that is true to herself and her morals, despite its loneliness. We see Tina picking at a tree, eating insects, and walking around when suddenly, she sees a large box at her door, punctured with air holes. She opens it up to find a healthy baby troll and a postcard from Finland. We understand that Vore has given birth and has sent the baby back to her. She carries the baby and feeds him an insect of his own and he laughs up at her. She smiles back and finally, we feel her at peace.

Border is a film about regeneration — regeneration of identity, brought on by a rebirth of the self, brought on by interactions with the land. As society grows ever-larger, collective memory of the importance of the land and earth have also fallen away. Industries threaten to inhale our natural resources at alarming rates. Technology has industrialized our land, air, and water. We live through screens. Border resists all of these facts and reminds us of the first necessity of life: an earth to care for and be regenerated from.

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