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Flights of Non-Fiction

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. For instance, the story behind "The Terminal" about a man who is detained at an airport and ends up living in the terminal is based on a real story about a man stuck at a French airport for more than 10 years.

Through a series of missteps, Merhan Karimi Nasseri ended up at Frances' Charles de Gaulle Airport without any documents that would allow him to leave, but also without a visa that would allow him to enter France. Stuck in a legal limbo, Nasseri made his home at the airport, getting to know its staff and even receiving his mail there.

Nasseri's story started in 1987 when he was expelled from his homeland after protesting against Iran's shah. His exile left him without a passport. Hoping to gain refugee status, he headed to England and got as far as Paris when his refugee credentials were stolen at a train station in 1988. While Nasseri boarded a plane to London without his papers, he was stopped at Heathrow Airport and sent back to France where he was arrested for illegal entry. Later released, Nasseri took up residence in Charles de Gaulle's Terminal One, where he remains to this day, according to reports.

The stranded man's story was first adapted for film in 1993 in the French film entitled "Tombes du Ciel" (which translates to Fallen From the Sky), starring Jean Rochefort, before executive producer Andrew Niccol (who wrote "The Truman Show") developed another take on the story with screenwriter Sacha Gervasi ("The Big Tease").

"I thought it was a brilliant place to start in creating a scenario that most people would never believe could actually happen," says Gervasi.

"The Terminal" is only loosely based on Nasseri's story. Many of the original details have been altered, including changing Nasseri's name to Viktor Navorski (played by two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks), his country of origin from Iran to the fictional East European country of Krakozhia and the airport is no longer Charles de Gaulle, but instead a fictional New York airport. Also added was a love interest courtesy of airplane stewardess Amelia (another Oscar winner, Catherine Zeta-Jones) and a host of airport staff who become Viktor's new family.

The idea quickly attracted Steven Spielberg, who says the script "made me forget the five scripts I'd read before it."

"I had an immediate affinity for Viktor's story," the director says. "I believe all of us had felt a little bit like Viktor at some time in our lives -- this displaced person in search of a life."

It is very likely that the fictionalized version will also end on a much happier note than the real story. Nasseri finally got what should have been a happy ending in 1999 when he was granted French residency, however, the card lists Nasseri's nationality as "Iranian," which he has a problem with so he has refused to sign the papers and thus remains at the airport's Terminal One.

"The Terminal" opens nationwide Friday, June 18.

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    • by Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune


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