venice 2023

Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border Is an Urgent Warning

Photo: Agata Kubis/Courtesy of Films Boutique

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Green Border since I saw it at its Venice Film Festival premiere this week. The film, about the refugee crisis on the forested border between Poland and Belarus, is a call to arms from director Agnieszka Holland and co-writers Gabriela Łazarkiewicz-Sieczko and Maciej Pisuk — a viscerally disturbing, two-and-a-half-hour warning about the international encroachment of fascism and mass dehumanization, captured even as tragedy continues to unfold.

Shot in black and white, Green Border feels like a quasi documentary as well as a bleak thriller, and it’s divided into several sections, each looking at the crisis from a different perspective. In the first, we meet a Syrian family led by parents Amina (Dalia Naous) and Bashir (Jalal Altawil) and an Afghani teacher named Leila (Behi Djanati Atai) who joins them at the border, where they’ve come to seek asylum in the E.U. after being lured by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s propaganda. They arrive optimistic about their free future until they realize they are operating on a false promise and spend the duration of the film being quite literally tossed back and forth over the barbed wire between the countries, exploited as political pawns and denied their basic human rights, having to choose between being abused and starved and attacked by both sets of border guards or drowning or freezing to death in the brutal “exclusion zone” forest.

The second section follows one of those guards, a Polish man named Jan (Tomasz Włosok) whose pregnant wife sees a viral video wherein he viciously beats back refugees from the fence; the cognitive dissonance he experiences between his home life and work life starts to heavily weigh on him. In the third, we meet Julia (Maja Ostaszewska), a Polish woman who rescues Leila from a swamp behind her house and, awakening to her own complacency and complicity, becomes radically involved with a local activist group that provides those trapped in the exclusion zone with supplies and food and medical care, all at their own significant risk.

Holland, who herself fled Poland in the ’80s and is the grandchild of Holocaust victims and the daughter of a Warsaw Uprising fighter, has historically made unflinching films about horrors most people can hardly bear to contemplate: Holocaust dramas In Darkness and Europa Europa; Mr. Jones, about the Ukrainian famine; To Kill a Priest, about the murder of a Polish dissident. Holland also made the beloved 1991 adaptation of The Secret Garden, which is, subject-wise, an outlier for her but still tonally consistent — gorgeously photographed, shot through with a gothic darkness. As Holland writes in the film’s press notes, Green Border is a natural follow-up to the sort of work she’d been doing for her entire career, and making it felt like a moral imperative: “I saw in their situation something poignantly symbolic and perhaps a prequel to a drama that could lead to the moral (and also political) collapse of our world.”

Just before the Venice Film Festival wrapped this year (and just before the film heads to festivals in Toronto and New York), I sat down with Holland as she ate a plate of pasta with her daughter (who often works with her mother, but not on this film). We talked about the film’s genesis, the defamatory response it’s already generated from the Polish justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro (he said, having not seen the film, “In the Third Reich, the Germans produced propaganda films showing Poles as bandits and murderers — today, they have Agnieszka Holland for that”), and how she’s able to cultivate a “surgeon’s coldness” when making these films.

When did you come up with the idea for this film?
The situation on the Polish border started, or at least became visible to people, at the end of August 2021. I’d seen that the situation started with a group of Afghan refugees surrounded on one side by Belarusian guards and the other side by Polish guards — in a kind of trap with no food, with no water, with no medical help. The Polish guards at the beginning had been nurturing, and then the order came: “No.” They were not allowed access to anyone — medics, humanitarian organizations, politicians. Over the weeks, they became more frail. A woman was very sick, and one day they disappeared. Then several situations like that happened on the border and they started to construct the barbed wire fence and close the zone to everyone, even the Polish authorities. It was impossible to help those people, and it was impossible to see what was going on. The ruler of the camp, Jarosław Kaczyński, who is the head of the ruling party in Poland — he’s a dictator — he said, “America lost the war in Vietnam because they allowed the media to be there.” It was a very clear, cynical statement: We can do terrible things, but you cannot see it.

Some journalists tried to go there, but very few, I should say. And some photographers took photos of the zone, the border. I was friends with some activists who started to quickly organize themselves, and some local people joined. The disaster was growing. The winter was coming; even the fall is pretty cold there at night. They had frozen people in the forest. It was clear that without help, people were going to die, and they already started dying. Mid-September, I decided, 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.

When did you start writing? Everything you wrote is based on real situations, right?
I invited two young screenwriters, one who’s an activist as well, and we wrote it very quickly. We documented it very deeply. Everything that happens in the film is documented; nothing is invented. Of course, we did some construction — the characters aren’t one to one; inspired by real people but composed. I wanted to start shooting immediately, but we didn’t have money. So it took a year before we were able to shoot it.

How did you get your information after the media blackout from the exclusion zone?
The media had been following it before the zone was locked. Some very courageous reporters came from the other side of the refugee corridor, which was opened by the Belarusian dictator Lukashenko for a very simple reason: not to help refugees go to the European Union, but to destabilize the E.U. and the border countries. Knowing from 2015 how easy it was — how afraid Europe was of the refugees and how quickly the populist and fascist governments are taking power and growing — they wanted to infuse refugees as a sort of laboratory test: They see how we react, in very irrational and cynical and cruel ways, 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.” That moral battle, that moral victory, is maybe even more obvious than the political victory.

At the same time, I had been following migrants and refugees from the beginning of the Syrian War, and I knew that the problem would be growing with the climate catastrophe, with the differences between the lazy but rich Europe and the situation in most of the states that have fallen with the help of Americans and Europeans, like Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria. The European Union, the rich world, doesn’t have a response to this growing problem — they’re pushing boats back over the border, using open violence, accepted and orchestrated by the state. They use the refugees as propaganda to create fear among the population and to keep power. The consequences are dehumanization, and it’s happening in Poland. On public television, the most important politicians are saying, “They’re not people, they’re just weapons. They’re zoophiles. They’re pedophiles. They’re terrorists, spreading disease and parasites.” It’s fascist speech. It’s very dangerous to open the doors for the next step, which could be just to kill those people.

How did you land on the stylistic choices and tone for this movie? You obviously want people to be shaken, but it isn’t overplayed; it feels almost restrained.
We thought that black and white would be metaphorical, and somehow connected to the past, the Second World War, documentary-like. You can control visually and artistically much better that way, especially because we shot it extremely fast, in 24 days, with three units, the main one being mine. And we edited it very fast. We didn’t want to make it sentimental or manipulative. We didn’t want to get too emotional, we wanted to make it sober, to be as close to the human beings as possible. I think there was a lot of motivation for all of us. People decided to do it even though it was risky; my producer is taking a big risk to do this in today’s Poland. People took low or no salaries. I’m so grateful to everybody for this collective effort.

I didn’t feel manipulated, but I did feel guilty, not quite knowing or understanding the extent of the problem. Has that been a reaction you’re getting from the audience?
Yes, the reaction has been very strong. Some people know this particular story but mostly just about the refugee situation from wherever they live. This connects the dots: If you go, for example, to the Balkans, it’s terrible there. The most terrible is in Tunisia, where the refugees from Saharan Africa are trying to flee to Spain, and the conditions there are terrible. In Saudi Arabia, the border guards are using machine guns.

And in America, too, obviously, where border officers in Texas are pushing children back into the river and purposefully denying them water. So it’s not unique, which is even more devastating.
That’s the only response the rich world has, to do that.
What were the risks to you inherent in making this movie?
The Polish minister of justice, who’s also the attorney general — he posted two days ago, without even watching the film, of course, because nobody has seen the film in Poland — that the Nazis had propaganda for heroic Polish soldiers, and now they have Agnieszka Holland. Which was juicy, I have to say. [Laughs.] But I think he went a bit over the top and into hate speech. What makes me a bit nervous is that we are in the election period, and they’ll be using the refugees and the security of our borders and the beauty of our armed forces as a very important tool in the election. They’re doing it already. And some deranged person can turn to violence. Against me, for example. I’m the most exposed.

Was that something you considered or feared while making it?
I fear and I don’t fear. It can happen. If it will happen, and I hope it will not [knocks on the table], we know exactly who is responsible for that.

You said earlier you knew you couldn’t be an activist with a backpack in the woods, and Julia in the film sacrifices herself to the cause. But what would you suggest that the average person do?
You can help with money. That’s very important. It’s mostly the same people who have been doing that for three years, and the resources are drying up. And simple everyday work. Go to the forest with water and food and shoes and legal papers and help them. A group of Ethiopians, very close to the city, had been hiding in the forest with a young woman who was sick. She was in pretty bad condition, and they decided to go to the city and alert the police that she needs help, knowing that if they were arrested, they’d be pushed back to Belarus. They were arrested and pushed back to Belarus before they convinced the border guards to go to the forest, to show them where the woman was. But they expected that she would be taken to the hospital, and when they didn’t hear from her for several days, they alerted my friends, local activists, and they went to look for her. They found her dead in the forest. Close to the road. Five minutes from the city. The police and border guards knew she was dying, and they didn’t go and take her to the hospital. It’s very easy to know who exactly is responsible for her death. It’s not an abstraction. It’s these people.

Was this an emotional experience for you, doing the research and the writing and the directing? Or are you able to turn that off to work?
I made three movies about the Holocaust and one about Stalin’s family. So I have some surgeon’s coldness. It means I have to be distant. I’m not crying when I’m shooting. I was very moved and kind of obsessed for a year as I collected photos and videos and statements. But my obligation is to tell the story, not to cry.

Do you believe artists have a responsibility to make their art political?
Not everybody. It would be very sad if all artists felt they had to be political. But I believe that everything is political, and we’re in a particular time when we have an obligation to take a stance and, through the special means we have, to parse what we feel, what we see, and describe what the world is right now and ask questions about the future. And I think we’re not fulfilling that obligation enough.

How so? What would you like to see more of?
To make more movies about things that matter. To see the danger when it is born, not 30 years later.

Yes, it’s rare to see a movie about something that’s happening right now.
We’re at a crossroads, for sure. The Holocaust was a vaccination for humanity, especially for Europe, against nationalism and racism. For respect, for human rights. And the vaccination created the European Union. And now it’s evaporating. It’s over. It doesn’t work anymore.

Why do you think that is?
The new challenges are very complicated, and people are afraid of them: climate changes, gender changes, technological changes, demographic changes, poverty. There is no simple solution, and democratic and liberal politicians have stopped even looking. They’re hiding like an ostrich in the sun. Populist politicians say, “Oh, it’s our political goal to make you safe, we have fantastic solutions to make you rich and happy and important.” Make America great again and all that shit. And it works. Because people want to believe the solution is there.

Do you have any hope or optimism about the future? It seems like you must have a little bit to make this film.
Don’t ask me about hope. [Laughs.] In my philosophy, you just have to act. Whatever it will be, we have to act. I have hope in the long distance because after the disaster, the sun comes up. And we are one or two steps further. So it’s some kind of progress. But today we’re not even sure that the planet will survive.

On a lighter note, do you care at all about the buzz around the Golden Lion for this film? Do awards matter to you?
It’s better not to listen to that because it mostly doesn’t work. Buzz is dangerous; it creates expectations. I’m critical of the prizes. It can happen that you have one of the best films and you don’t get the prize. It’s not that I don’t care; of course I’d like to be recognized. And for this particular film, for sure. We have dark forces against us. To have some gold or silver in my hands would be very efficient. A film like this needs support.

More From Venice

See All
Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border Is an Urgent Warning