Border, as a tale of the Deaf Community
Ali Abbasi’s film Border (“Gräns“) from last year is a tour de force and I highly recommend you stop reading this, or anything else about it, and go watch it. Then come back.
Border concerns Tina, a customs official in Sweden with an unusual face that sets her apart from others, and who is able to smell contraband, as well as guilt or shame - making her perfect for the Nothing to Declare corridor. She has not met anybody like her before, until one day through customs walks Vore, who shares her appearance and tastes, and the physical scar where their tails were removed as children. Yes, tails - because, as Vore explains to her later, they are trolls.
There are very few trolls left, and we only hear about them second-hand as a small group in Finland. They are a diminishing population presumably because of the history we learn of ultimately in which trolls are kept apart from the majority human world where they die prematurely due to experimentation and, we assume, from being separated from their habitat in the woods. Their children, like Tina, have surgery to appear like the humans who raise them to fit in.
Tina’s character arc is one of passing as a human in a bleak civil service job sharing her home with a weak lodger/partner who prefers his dogs to her, to discovering that she is not an “ugly strange human with a chromosome flaw” or “deformed” but a rich and fully developed individual in her own right and with skills that set her not only apart from but above her human colleagues. She discovers joy and affirmation in the company of Vore, and embraces her identity - ultimately changing her very name from Tina back to the name given by her parents: “Reva”. The most powerful moment, for me, is when Vore tells her of the Finland group and says “To find them you have to let them find you“; all the time you try to pass as a member of the majority, the minority with whom you will share experiences and ultimately identity will not see you. Only when you embrace your true self will you notice that you were never alone.
The title Border implies the edge of a domain, the boundary of a set, and the primary setting of customs highlights how difficult it can be to move between those domains as the controllers of the domain control the departures and arrivals. Superficially this is Sweden customs control, but also humans policing and protecting their species from strange others, and - I believe - majority groups’ and cultures’ control over what is “normal”; hearing people’s control over deafness.
This movie is about Deaf people in what hearing people despicably like to call the “Hearing World”.
I wanted Border to be just this, but there is a further unavoidable aspect to it: Vore, it turns out, supplies young children to a human paedophile ring that Tina/Reva has been helping the police uncover using her heightened sensory abilities. We learn that Vore’s (troll) parents were taken and experimented upon in a psychiatric hospital where they died prematurely, and that he was passed between orphanages and serially abused. Although Vore’s choices are definitely abhorrent and inexcusable, it is nevertheless the case that sexual abusers are more likely to have been abused themselves, and oppressed minorities are exploited in many ways including this. By demonising a minority we create within that minority those very demons. Vore’s is a timely and cautionary tale when we continue to turn against groups we consider to be other.
The highest achievement of this brave and unsettling film is the final scene when Reva feeds a troll baby that we must assume is hers and Vore’s. Despite being frighteningly other-worldly, with soft dark hair on its face, a heavy brow, and unsettling expression, and despite the fact that Reva feeds it insects, the audience feels delight and love rather than revulsion. Just as we can feel such warmth and understanding to a fictional troll child, so hearing people should be able to understand the wonder felt by a Deaf couple with a profoundly deaf baby.
Perhaps then we can embrace diversity in its truest and widest sense instead of moulding and cutting individuals to conform to an - equally fictional - normal.