When politicians across Europe want to curry favour with voters these days, refugees tend to cop it first. With senior members of the British government telling so-called ‘illegals’ to ‘fuck off back to France’, it’s easy to see how dehumanising language around migrants could become normalised again.
Following real events that took place in 2021 and shot in stark black-and-white, Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border wants to un-normalise it, pronto. A gripping, visceral human drama that occasionally turns shakycam thriller to excellent effect, it’s a small victory for empathy over coarseness. Like Michael Winterbottom’s prescient 2003 docudrama In This World, it demands that you witness the treatment of refugees with your own eyes.
Green Border’s hopeful travellers, a band of Syrians, Africans and Afghans, land in Belarus looking to cross the border into Poland and the supposed safety of the EU. In their midst is a Syrian family – granddad (Mohamad Al Rashi, a refugee in real life), son Bashir (Jalal Altawil), his wife Amina (Dalia Naous) and their two kids – fleeing their besieged town of Harasta and hoping to reach Sweden, where a relative is waiting for them.
Leila (Behi Djanati Atai), a teacher escaping Taliban persecution in Afghanistan, asks to join them. She quickly proves her value, producing the cash border guards demand to turn a blind eye to their crossing and helping keep their all-important cellphones charged as they hang out nervously in the woods – the so-called ‘Green Border’ – waiting for the next stage of their journey.
Except it never comes, because, as Holland shows us, the refugees are pawns in a wider political game: Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko is using them to destabilise the borders of the EU, and in contravention to EU law, Poland is throwing them back (sometimes literally). We see two sets of border guards outdoing each other for cruelty, as the refugees yo-yo from one side to the other, enduring life without shelter in the woods as well-meaning activists offer comfort but no way out.
This gripping human drama occasionally turns shakycam thriller to excellent effect
Holland neatly triangulates their story with two other human dramas unfolding on the Polish side of the border: the moral crisis of a border guard being indoctrinated against the refugees (‘They aren’t people, they are bullets,’ rants his superior); and a therapist (Maja Ostaszewska) turning to activism in the face of the horrors she witnesses on the border. There’s no hectoring in all this, even if Holland makes it pretty clear where her sympathies lie.
The legendary Polish director has been here before. With Europa, Europa (1990) and In Darkness (2012) she put two discrete spins on the Jewish experience of life and death during the Holocaust. 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?
Green Border leaves us with a slight chink of optimism. Holland is at pains to show Poland’s young people rejecting the poison of state media and the cruelty of their government to embrace a more human approach to the migrant crisis. Maybe, just maybe, a new generation will shrug off the grim repetition of history. It’s a hopeful coda to a stunning, harrowing film.
Green Border premiered at the Venice Film Festival.