Cannes 2018 review: Border (Ali Abbasi)

Queer cinema has traditionally strived to represent people in the margins of society, namely lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered persons, and others not characterized by traditional sexual or gender-conforming identities. In a medium dominated by the stories of those who have always enjoyed the privilege of automatic acceptance by society, it is so important for people who stray from social norms to see themselves represented in cinema. But it is still possible to retain the spirit of Queer cinema without explicit mention of any of these identities, and Ali Abbasi’s Border is an exploration of identity that subverts and challenges the language of how to convey queerness for the screen.

Tina has always felt different. Her face is naturally puffy, her features are undefined, and she has a mysterious scar above her tailbone that her father explains is from a rock falling on her when she was three years old. As a child, she would try to seek comfort by reassuring herself that her differences made her special, but as she has matured, she has become resigned to feeling like an ugly, deformed person, presumably thanks to a flawed chromosome. As if looking different from everyone else is not enough reason for feeling alienated, Tina has a bizarre proclivity for raising her upper lip and sniffing the air. This strange mannerism will soon prove fruitful in her vocation as a customs agent where she will have foresight of phenomena with no tangible explanations. Despite no overt signs to justify her suspicion, Tina discovers a memory card full of child pornography in the possession of a traveler. Questioned on how she knew, Tina explains that she can smell guilt, shame, and fear.

When Vore, a man with ruddy features not unlike hers, passes though customs, she senses something off about him. Nothing in his possessions is out of order, but Tina insists that they continue to investigate him, and her colleague begins a private strip search of Vore. Tina’s colleague returns, embarrassed, and informs her of several discoveries, including a scar (just like hers) above his tailbone. Filled with intrigue and newfound desire by the discovery of similarities she thought she would never share with another person, Tina invites Vore to move into her guest house, and begins a journey of astonishing discovery that explores the temporal and existential connection between identity and body.

Tina’s bewildering revelations may not neatly fit any of the letters in the alphabet of LGBTQ, but they bear parallels to the ideas behind these identities, which share surprising similarities with hers. Her experiences are marked by brilliant, fantastically contrived moments that mirror queer sexual awakening, the exploration of gender, and the coming out experience, and Border contemplates how they tie into the question of what it may or may not mean to be human. By not presenting these literally, Abbasi finds a creative way for his absurdly specific imaginings to argue that it is not necessary for one to be able to relate to every part of another person’s experience, and in doing so, shows how the queer experience is actually universal.