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10 Directors to Watch: Ali Abbasi Pushes Genre Boundaries in Swedish ‘Border’

Cannes’ Un Certain Regard winner – and Sweden’s Oscar submission – 'Border' crosses folklore with thriller elements, to unexpected effect.

Ali Abbasi 10 Directors to Watch
James Gourley/REX/Shutterstock

Iran-born, Denmark-​based director Ali Abbasi was the toast of Cannes this year with his second feature, the Swedish-Danish “Border,” which won the top prize in Un Certain Regard. Fantastic in every sense of the word, the film, distributed in the U.S. by Neon, was selected to represent Sweden in the foreign-language Oscar race and has been short-listed in the makeup category. But the U.S. travel ban has made it difficult to promote the film, given that Abbasi still has an Iranian passport.

After half-heartedly pursuing a chemical engineering degree in Iran, Abbasi moved to Sweden to study architecture when he was 20. But along with his daytime classes, he wound up attending films nightly at the Swedish Film Institute’s Cinematheque for several years. Finally realizing that he didn’t have the temperament to be an architect, he enrolled in the Danish National Film School.

“Almost all of the important collaborations I’ve had — with my DP, editor, composer and friends [such as co-writer] Isabella Eklof and Milad Alami — came from that film school,” he says.

What’s next for Abbasi? Even before “Border,” he was developing a project about an Iranian serial killer, “The Holy Spider,” in Denmark. But, he notes, “doing a movie in Iran has its own challenges. I don’t like censorship. Can I make the movie I want, get the cast I want, with the possibilities that are in Iran?”

Post-“Border,” he has received a number of propositions, everything from sci-fi and social drama to movies about the Middle East. But, he says, “right now, I feel that I want to do something with an actual political impact.”

He’s working on two or three English-language projects about important real-world events. He might also take on a French-German political thriller.

And what about Hollywood? “I would like to do an ‘Incredible Hulk’ movie because I connect with that character — the only superhero that I connect with,” he says.

Influences: Luis Buñuel, Chantal Akerman, Gabriel García Márquez
Agency: Independent Talent Group
Management: Management 360