Review: Green Border
by David Katz
- VENICE 2023: Polish leading light Agnieszka Holland returns with an adroit look at Belarus’s disruption of her country’s and the EU’s immigration policies
We begin in late 2021. Many viewers sitting down to this film will be heavily aware of its focus on a particular facet of the refugee crisis, but we first meet our fleeing characters sitting quite comfortably on a plane, as opposed to more scarily unstable transport. Variously originating from across the Middle East and Africa, they tentatively and sometimes excitedly make conversation: “Where are you originally from?” or “I’m travelling with my two children.”
But it’s all a horrible ruse, a feeling expressed with admirable subtlety by decorated Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, who has summoned courage in the face of national consensus to condemn her country’s border policies, and examine the attempts at sabotage by its neighbour Belarus, which has allowed refugees a somewhat safe passage into Poland and thus EU territory itself – all a response to sanctions imposed on them by the bloc. Its president (and “dictator”) Alexander Lukashenko’s alignment with Putin’s Russia is another vital variable. So Green Border [+see also:
film profile] is an urgently, pertinently topical film from the director, whose politically charged and versatile career has spanned several decades; it is her third feature, over 40 years, to compete for Venice’s Golden Lion.
Noteworthy, as the film makes its way to festivals and further theatrical audiences, is the exact angle it adopts on the refugee crisis, especially in a structural and formal sense. Shot in crisp, atmospheric black and white that adds just the right amount of stylisation (and also a nicely witchy quality, amidst the sprawling trees and chipped branches of its Białowieża Forest location), its first act displays the unique and horrifying predicament the refugees face once they step off that flight and into a dread-inducing Belarusian army convoy. Through the focal characters of Bashir (Jalal Altawil, a non-professional whose own migration journey informed the film), his wife Amina (Dalia Naous) and their three children, alongside characters from Afghanistan and West Africa, their ordeal is expressed with nightmarish clarity: immediately following their crossing, the Polish border guard forces them back into Belarus, assaulting, battering and manhandling them, to an extent that crosses into its own realm of human rights abuse. And then the process is recommenced by the Belarusian military. Again and again. When one of the harried refugees actually makes a reference to a football traversing a pitch, he confirms the horrible and apt analogy that’s likely occurred to the audience.
There is not exactly hope, but a resistance, and despite introducing the group of activists early, the film gradually transitions across its two-and-a-half-hour running time to make them the dual primary focus. Initially, they’re a collective mass: young, studenty, dressed stereotypically in woollen beanies and with fluorescent hair you can identify even in the monochrome images. But they’re a well-marshalled bunch, offering food, drink and first aid at various points across the border, and then putting their heads together to create a near “underground railroad”, helping the remainder that have actually survived death to find safe haven. Julia (beautifully played by Maja Ostaszewska) is a middle-aged psychotherapist who virtually becomes a surrogate mother to all of the activists, and as we learn her rationale for joining, and the potential danger (and risks of arrest for “human trafficking”), greater depth and pathos bloom.
Regarding Holland herself, Green Border’s key link to her 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 US urban war on drugs. There’s a similar panoramic view, ensemble focus and systemic critique here, although we’re grateful when Holland moves on from the (necessarily) more manipulative opening stretches, to alight on this issue’s wider resonance in Poland. And resonated and offended it has, with the nation’s hard-right justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, describing it as Nazi propaganda, sight unseen. It’s a charged term, yet across the European continent, we are maybe facing a true war, a border war – when national borders themselves can be the most arbitrary and provisional things.
Green Border is a co-production between Poland, France, the Czech Republic and Belgium, staged by Metro Films, Marlene Film, Blick Productions, Beluga Tree, Downey Ink, dFlights, Astute Films and Saudade Film. Its world sales are handled by Films Boutique.
Photogallery 05/09/2023: Venice 2023 - Green Border
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