Venice Film Festival ‘Green Border’ Review: Agnieszka Holland’s Humanitarian Masterpiece Offers A Harrowing Vision Of The Refugee Crisis In Europe
By Damon Wise, Deadline September 5, 2023
The question is simple, but searing: who are we underneath, and what the hell have we become? ..it’s a modern-day resistance movie dealing with a new kind of fascism, and very much of a piece with Holland's previous classics In Darkness and Europa, Europa.
“Green Border” is a heart-in-mouth thriller set on the Polish-Belarusian border that wraps its social critique in the razor wire of punchy, intelligent cinematic craft in order to elicit precisely such emotions. --Jessica Kiang, Variety
As if to come to the aid of her national cinema after the debacle that was Roman Polanski’s The Palace, Poland’s Agnieska Holland, soon to turn 75, restores some of her homeland’s cultural dignity with a devastating exposé that angrily, and quite brilliantly, questions its humanity and political integrity.
At 144 minutes, and in black and white, it is not exactly a Trojan horse, and its moral rigor does not come with a spoonful of sugar. But Green Borderearns every second of that running time, and with a focus and energy that belies its director’s age. Awards-wise, this may prove to be the international feature to beat.
It begins in October 2021 with Chapter 1: The Family, in which a Syrian couple, Bashir and Amina, their three children and their grandfather are traveling on a plane from Turkey to Belarus. Their mood is upbeat; they are planning to go from Belarus to Poland, and from Poland to Sweden, where a relative is waiting. They share their plans with Leila, an Afghani woman heading to Poland, having heard good things about the country from her brother, who fought in Kabul alongside the Poles. The stewardesses hand out roses, wishing everyone “a nice stay in Belarus.”
It’s a welcome that will soon ring very, very hollow. Boarding a transit van, the group encounters an armed checkpoint where the soldiers take their money and open the “border” — a barbed-wire fence — to Poland. For a while they survive in the woods, until the Polish military arrive and kick them back to Belarus, where they join a ramshackle refugee camp run by sadistic soldiers. The Syrians plead for the bare minimum — some compassion — knowing that help will not be forthcoming. “If you came to our town,” says one, “we would invite you in. Why are you doing this to us?”
Holland explores that question with Chapter 2: The Guard, in which Tomasz W³osok plays Jan, a border guard whose wife is about to have a baby. We first see Jan at a meeting where he and his colleagues are being given the party line on illegal immigrants: all of them are potential terrorists, weapons of Putin and Belarus President Lukashenko, using children as human shields (“They hire and buy children, and blow smoke in their eyes to make them cry”). Their superior concludes by saying, with bone-chilling flippancy, that there must be no dead bodies. “If you see one,” he says, knowingly, “it shouldn’t be there.”
Chapter 3 brings us The Activists, introducing an informal group of philanthropists and anarchists that provide soup and clothing for illegals, on the understanding that anything more substantial than that will open them up to heavy prison sentences, ostensibly for people-trafficking. Chapter 4, meanwhile, brings in Julia (Maja Ostaszewska), a recently widowed psychiatrist, who finds Leila about to drown in a swamp, along with the Syrian family’s little boy. What happens next drives the moderate, probably centrist woman to radicalism and into the arms of the activists. Some accept her help with gratitude, others are suspicious, stereotyping her as a “common, petty liberal looking to boost her self-esteem.”
Over time, the chapters begin to connect and overlap, putting together a rich mosaic of a story that, although somewhat specific to Poland, is by no means unique to Poland. As they are everywhere, immigrants are demonized and dehumanized, stripped of their human rights and used as ballast in the border war between Poland and Belarus, bouncing these unwanted people back and forth like footballs.
In this way, Holland emphasizes how the refugee crisis has politicized such basic issues as food, housing and clothing; in one striking scene, Julia is forced to undergo a humiliating strip search, and in another, Jan looks at himself naked in the mirror. The question is simple, but searing: who are we underneath, and what the hell have we become? This Poland is a nation of finks, and it is abundantly clear why Holland made this film the way she did: it’s a modern-day resistance movie dealing with a new kind of fascism, and very much of a piece with her previous classics In Darkness and Europa, Europa.
Though she tilts at the systemic racism at play, and the surge of insidious populist politics that has made its implementation so easy, so respectable and so palatable, Holland keeps her camera squarely on the side of the people behind the statistics. In a story that starts with so much hope and descends into a catalogue of atrocities that scarcely seem possible in peacetime, Amina speaks for everyone when fate finally reveals the cruel hand it has given her. “You said the way would be quick and easy,” she laments. And despite everything we might read in the tabloids, it is anything but.
Title: Green Border Festival: Venice (Competition) Director: Agnieska Holland, in collaboration with Kamila Tarabura and Katarzyna Warzecha Screenwriters: Maciej Pisuk, Gabriela £azarkiewicz-Sieczko, Agnieska Holland Cast: Jalal Altawil, Maja Ostaszewska, Tomasz W³osok Running time: 2hr 24 min Sales agent: Films Boutique