Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border

Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border (2023)

Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border, which screens next week at the New York Film Festival, just scored the best weekend at the domestic box office of any Polish film this year. That would be a remarkable feat for any two-and-a-half-hour, black-and-white movie with a multistrand narrative, but it’s all the more astonishing considering that, as Melanie Goodfellow reports for Deadline, Poland’s “ruling right-wing, anti-immigrant coalition government, led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party” staged “an online hate campaign against Holland and also encouraged physical protests outside cinemas showing the film by neofascists groups.”

A court in Warsaw, in the meantime, has upheld Holland’s right to sue Zbigniew Ziobro, Poland’s justice minister, for defamation after he compared the film to “Nazi propaganda.” Holland, whose paternal grandparents were Holocaust victims and whose mother took part in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, is demanding an apology and a donation to a charity working on behalf of Holocaust survivors. As John Bleasdale puts it at CineVue, “Holland is pissing the right people off. Let’s hope she inspires the rest of us.”

Divided into five chapters, Green Border first introduces a Syrian family on board a flight from Turkey to Belarus. Hopes are high. The year is 2021, and Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has promised safe passage to Europe to refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. The family has relatives waiting in Sweden. Amina (Dalia Naous) and her husband Bashir (Jalal Altawil) meet and befriend an Afghani teacher, Leila (Behi Djanati Atai). When the plane lands, the flight attendants hand each passenger a rose.

The refugees are transported to Belarus’s deeply forested border with Poland, where Polish guards brutishly force them back at gunpoint. Jan (Tomasz Włosok) is one of them, and his pregnant wife back home (Malwina Buss) can’t believe he’s taking part in these atrocities until she actually sees him in action on video. The guards’ commanding officer has told them that these refugees “are not people” but “bullets” fired into their country by Lukashenko and, by extension, Vladimir Putin.

“It’s dehumanization 101,” writes Jessica Kiang in Variety, “a process Green Border, down to its DNA, is designed to counteract. Here, every character, no matter how minor or how seemingly unworthy, is accorded a degree of private dignity which somehow avoids the pitfalls of both-sides-ism.” Holland, “directing in collaboration with Kamila Tarabura and Katarzyna Warzecha, and cowriting with Maciej Pisuk and Gabriela Łazarkiewicz-Sieczko, delivers outstanding characterization.” The refugees “are people we know, not simply archetypes of victimhood being used to illustrate a crisis.”

As Polish and Belarusian guards shove these people back and forth across the border, firehoses blasting and bodies literally tossed over barbed-wire fences, Poland enforces a media blackout. All rules are suspended in this exclusion zone. Activists like sisters Marta (Monika Frajczyk) and Zuku (Jasmina Polak), eventually joined by Julia (Maja Ostaszewska), a widowed psychiatrist who becomes a sort of mother figure for the group, smuggle in food, water, and medical supplies.

Lukashenko, in the meantime, gleefully beams coverage of the chaos around the world. The strategy is pure Putinist whataboutism. “They see how we react in very irrational and cynical and cruel ways,” Holland tells Vulture’s Rachel Handler, “and they can say, ‘Okay, your European values, your democracy, your brotherhood and sisterhood, your freedom of press—forget it! You’re the same as we are.’” In September 2021, Holland decided that “I can’t be an activist and go there with a heavy backpack. But I know how to make films. And I will do this to show what they’re trying to hide . . . Everything that happens in the film is documented; nothing is invented.”

When Green Border premiered in Venice, it won a Special Jury Prize, and when it screened in Toronto, the New York Times’s Manohla Dargis opened her festival dispatch with the film, calling it “a great howl of a movie.” It does have its detractors. “The first three segments are a powerful, harrowing indictment,” writes Ioncinema’s Nicholas Bell, “but a schmaltzy dip into white knighting territory hampers the film’s intent.”

Most reviewers, though, regard Green Border as an urgent and accomplished work. At Cineuropa, David Katz suggests that the film’s “key link” to Holland’s “past oeuvre might be her stint as a lead director, and key visual auteur, of The Wire, David Simon’s canonical (and once extravagantly praised) series focusing on the U.S. urban war on drugs. There’s a similar panoramic view, ensemble focus, and systemic critique here.”

With Europa, Europa (1990) and In Darkness (2012), Holland “put two discrete spins on the Jewish experience of life and death during the Holocaust,” writes Time Out’s Phil de Semlyen.Green Border has neither the bitter absurdism of the former, nor the raw suspense of the latter, but in its barbed wire, barking Alsatians, abandoned suitcases, and soldiers dishing out cigarettes to the huddled refugees prior to unleashing some fresh violence on them, Green Border consciously echoes those films and their bleak history. How could this happen again (and again), it asks, and who will do something about it?”

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