Filmmaker Ali Abbasi lives in Copenhagen, but he has an Iranian passport; he grew up in the country and moved to Denmark when he was 20 years old. That proved complicated when his second feature “Border,” Sweden’s Oscar submission and the winner of Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section last May, was selected for the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. Due to the Trump Administration’s travel ban, which indefinitely suspends visas to Iranian citizens in addition to six other countries, Abbasi didn’t know if he could make it with his movie.
However, over the past week, the filmmaker learned that he was granted a rare exception to the rule. On Friday, he showed up at the Telluride Film Festival for the North American premiere of “Border,” which Neon will qualify in the U.S. later this year. Legal authorities have told him that he’s the first Iranian to gain an exception to the current version of the controversial policy, which the Supreme Court voted to uphold in early July. IndieWire has been unable to confirm the claim, though exceptions to the ban have been rare. In April, the Iranian American Bar Association reported that only two waivers were granted out of over 6,555 applications between December 8 and February 15.
“Some people really worked their asses off for us to be here, and we’re really grateful,” said Abbasi during a “Border” Q&A in Telluride on Saturday, when he was accompanied by his producer Nina Bisgaard, star Eva Melander, and costume designer Elsa Fischer.
Abassi noted over the last several weeks, he had to contend with “a lot of paperwork and a lot of chats with our lawyers and a lot of amusement.” Nevertheless, he found that once he arrived at the festival, he found himself in a familiar environment. “I’m going to drink some free booze, talk to you guys, and show the movie,” he said. “This wouldn’t be much different from what I’ve been doing in Sarajevo or in Oslo or anywhere else. So I’m like, why does it have to be difficult?”
Abassi has yet to book a return ticket, and it’s unclear if he’ll be able to travel to Canada for the Toronto International Film Festival, where “Border” screens on September 10. In late July, the Immigrant Advocacy & Litigation Center PLLC, and Public Counsel filed a class action lawsuit against the Trump Administration on behalf of applications whose visa applications had been “wrongfully denied” or “stalled.”
When the first version of the ban was instituted in early February 2017, Iranian filmmaker Asgar Farhadi had the option to pursue a waiver to attend the Academy Awards ceremony where he would win the foreign language Oscar for “The Salesman,” but chose not to attend in protest. While it’s not yet clear if “Border” will make the shortlist, Abassi’s travel challenges are not over.
“I have to say this, though,” he said. “Since I’ve come into the United States, I’ve thought that we are so welcome. It’s great, especially after all these hurdles.”
He added that he could relate to the frustrations that some Americans had expressed to him. “We’re [all] people, you know?” he said. “And I love that.”
As it turns out, “Border” deals rather directly with the challenges facing people ostracized by a close-minded society. The innovative fantasy finds Melander’s character discovering that she’s actually a troll separated from her kind at birth, and overcomes the cruel treatment she’s endured over the years when she finds romance with one of her own kind.
“In my opinion and my own experience, your identity is not something solid,” Abbasi said, reflecting on the movie’s themes. “I don’t think that just because I’m brown and from Iran, I have to feel like an Iranian doing this or that. Every person, to some extent, has the power to construct their own identity. That is an invitation for people to feel free to do so.”
This article has been updated.