Review: Green Border ★★★★★

Review: Green Border ★★★★★

Director Agnieszka Holland’s Venice Special Jury Prize winner, Green Border, is a heartbreakingly powerful dramatisation of a human rights travesty on the borders of Europe.

At a time when the far-right is resurgent across Europe, and even mainstream parties trade promises to ‘stop the boats’ and ‘crackdown’ on immigration, Green Border (in Polish, Zielona Granica) – directed by Agnieszka Holland, written by Holland, Gabriela Łazarkiewicz-Sieczko and Maciej Pisuk – is an angry, searing repudiation of the myth of refugee as insurgent threat. Instead, over two and half hours of stunningly shot yet achingly sad human drama, the true threats are made startlingly clear: cold political exploitation, heartless border policing, public apathy and the ease with which distant hinterlands can simply be dismissed as ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

A weakly protected, remote border between Poland (within the EU) and Belarus (without) is the Green Border of the film’s title, though Holland – in choosing to shoot in black-and-white – appropriately renders the forest setting in shades of grey. A group of refugees from the Middle East and Africa find themselves the ball in a perverse game of ping pong, as border forces on either side bat them to and fro across this most liminal of liminal spaces. If it wasn’t so distressing it might almost be funny, and indeed there are brief tragicomic flashes in Holland’s unblinking gaze, though ultimately – unsurprisingly – there is little relief to be found.

A Syrian family promised easy passage from Belarus to Sweden via Poland struggles against the odds to stay together through each disastrously farcical reversal of direction. They are joined, huddling for warmth without food or shelter, by an Afghan woman who hopes to find asylum in Poland. Their journeys, seemingly smooth as far as Minsk, have taken a devastating turn at the Polish border. In what feels, at times, like a real-time horror experience, Holland follow them back and forth through the barbed wire fence which comes to represent a political switchblade hacking at them from all angles. The word which best sums it all up: harrowing.

Where Holland turns towards other aspects of this tragedy, in chapters which focus on a Polish border guard and a group of activists respectively, the tale is hardly more optimistic. It should be no surprise that the Polish government, and the Polish Border Guard, have been outspoken critics of the film’s portrayal of the role of the border guards in aggressively – and, apparently, illegally – ejecting refugees back to Belarus without care or due process. Whilst Holland allows a scintilla of sympathy for the plight of soon-to-be-a-father Jan, whose guard duties appear to take some psychological toll, Green Border is far from an attempt to humanise, and sympathise with, the enforcers.  

The portrayal of the role of activists is handled with impressive nuance. While Julia, who joins the group attempting to intervene on behalf of the helpless refugees, ultimately comes to represent a faction who realise that playing by the rules of the system leaves you open to abuse by that very same system, others are still unwilling to take the risks required to help those who have already risked everything.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Jalal Altawil, Maja Ostaszewska, Tomasz Włosok, Behi Djanati Atai, Mohamad Al Rashi, Dalia Naous, Piotr Stramowski, Jaśmina Polak, Marta Stalmierska, Agata Kulesza, Maciej Stuhr, Magdalena Popławska, Joely Mbundu, Monika Frajczyk, Taim Ajjan & Talia Ajjan all throughly deserve their names to stand alongside Holland’s – they embody the characters so fully, so honestly, that the viewer is immediately and unswervingly compelled to bear witness to this fictionalised yet true story of human tragedy.  

Review: Green Border ★★★★★ 1

It feels inappropriate to pick out one or two performances, or moments, which ‘stand out’ – Green Border is not a film which seeks to provide montage-curators with a selection of ‘best bits’. There are moments of peril, of extreme tension, of horror, of heartbreaking sadness, and of utter despair. But somehow, miraculously, there are also moments of tenderness, compassion, humour, familial love, and unleashed exuberance. That Holland finds room for these latter moments is of vital importance: there is hope, however tenuous, that all this human suffering is worth it in the end.

In the UK, a perception promoted by the far-right – but depressingly, adopted even by those nearer the centre ground – is that migrants take unnecessary risks, endangering their lives and others’ lives, to ‘come over here’ and ‘take what’s ours’. They are to be repelled, turned around, shipped out, sent back to where they came from. So rarely are the questions asked: what horrors have these people endured to get here, and what part have we played in those horrors? We who do not question and challenge the moral corruption of inhumane anti-refugee policy – both in the abstract, and as it is enforced – are complicit in its crimes against humanity. Everyone needs to see Green Border, to take a long, hard look at the realities of border enforcement, and to ask themselves: how much longer can we allow this to continue in our names?