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Green Border: a new film shines a light on violent borders

Can cinema be a force for change in today’s world?

When I spoke to Agnieszka Holland on Zoom in March, I wanted to know why she directed her latest film. “Because I was angry,” she told me. “And because the situation has to be told.” 

The film in question is Green Border, which will be released in the UK on 21st June. The situation: the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ beginning in 2021 on the border between Belarus and Poland. The crisis was orchestrated by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s promise of safe passage into the EU via the Polish border, supposedly in response to sanctions on his government imposed by Brussels.

Lukashenko’s remarks and propaganda led to an influx of people, mainly from the Middle East and Africa, trying to gain access into Europe. In response, the Polish government quadrupled the number of border guards and troops on the border. A humanitarian emergency ensued. 

I’ve long been interested in the intersection of art and politics. Among the blockbuster superheroes and corporate reboots are films that hold a mirror to the corrupt power systems that govern so much of the world. But I’ve always wondered to what extent these films actually inspire change. 

How do you prevent a film from just being an aestheticisation of suffering and produce something that may actually challenge oppressive systems? I wanted to explore these questions and more with the director of Green Border.

A fictional film, but a very real story

Green Border is fictional, but is set against this very real backdrop of contemporary geopolitics. The title of the film refers to the less-militarised sections of national borders, such as forests. It’s through these routes that many people try to enter countries, often at the mercy of people-smugglers and the natural elements. 

As well as facing violence on both sides of the border, people, including children, often endure days outside in the bitter cold. The exact number of deaths on the Belarusian-Polish border is unknown, although Polish media report the number to be around 50. 

“Regimes use migration as a political tool,” Agnieszka tells me. “And in the middle of that, you have human beings who try to reach a safe life and escape persecution, war, famine, and then they become kind of prisoners. They are trapped in that situation.”

If Agnieszka was inspired to make Green Border from anger, she certainly instils that feeling in her viewers. Watching the film, my emotions ranged from rage to despair to shame to determination. Often, all at the same time. Cinema makes passive subjects of us; we are forced to watch something we can’t control. But films can also make us active citizens and campaigners. If nothing else, I hope people watching Green Border will start to question the very nature of borders and the trials of statelessness.

A political director

Agnieszka has never been one to turn away from difficult subjects. The Polish director, who turned 75 last year, made her name with confrontational films like Europa, Europa, her 1990 film based on the story of Salomon Perel, a Jewish boy who survived the Nazi regime by masquerading as a German Aryan. The film earned Agnieszka an Oscar nomination.

In recent years, she’s worked in television in the United States, directing episodes of The Wire and House of Cards. But her best work deals with geopolitics and the forces of history in her native Europe.

Several of her films, including Europa, Europa and In Darkness, confront the Holocaust. Mr. Jones, her 2019 film starring James Norton, is about the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones who travelled to Ukraine in 1933 and discovered the devastation of the Holodomor, the Soviet famine that killed millions of Ukrainians.

Agnieszka’s films show how the decisions of national rules affect ordinary people swept up in the tides of history. Green Border, despite its contemporary setting, is very much in this vein.

A human story

By telling the story of refugees, Agnieszka draws attention to the millions who fall victim to militarised border politics. In doing so, she attempts to counteract the anti-refugee propaganda that has spread across Europe in recent years. 

“I wanted to show the perspective of people seeking asylum,” she tells me. “And show the perspective of those who are sensitive and try to help and are criminalised: activists and the local people who suddenly are in danger.”

Green Border certainly gives us a lot of perspectives to consider. At two and a half hours, Agnieszka’s film intertwines the stories of a Syrian family trying to cross the Polish border; Julia, an activist; and Jan, a young border guard. With her screenwriters Maciej Pisuk and Gabriela Łazarkiewicz-Sieczko, Agnieszka interviewed multiple people for information when writing the script, including real Polish border guards. I wondered how she felt talking to the perpetrators of violence and whether she felt compelled to humanise them in her film.

“It was very difficult to reach the border guards because they’ve been afraid to talk,” she says. After speaking to one officer, however, several more came forward, wanting to give their testimony to Agnieszka. “They’re sensitive, normal human beings as I expected. Two of them evidently showed signs of post-traumatic stress.” This sensitivity comes through in Green Border. Though brutal, the border guards are not portrayed as caricatures and the film is more powerful for it.

Watching the film, I thought of Fanon interviewing both the perpetrators and victims of French colonial violence in Wretched of the Earth; by incorporating both coloniser and colonised, Fanon could better understand the pathologies of violence and analyse the damage the colonial system inflicts on everyone in its orbit. Agnieszka’s film likewise takes a holistic view, looking at the myriad ways militarised borders harm people. Though more subtly, Agnieszka sees the border guards in her film as victims of an oppressive system too.

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An unsurprising backlash 

The film was well received on the festival circuit, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Unsurprisingly, Green Border has also amassed its critics, not least from Poland’s ruling rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) party. 

When Green Border was first released in September last year, PiS were heading into an election and so were keen to provoke nationalist sentiment any way they could. Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro compared Holland’s work to Nazi propaganda, writing on X: “In the Third Reich, the Germans produced propaganda films showing Poles as bandits and murderers. Today they have Agnieszka Holland for that.” 

When the film was released in Poland, Agnieszka tells me she was accompanied by bodyguards for her protection. 

But the opposition didn’t just come from the government. Green Border was the victim of an organised review bombing campaign on the website Filmweb, orchestrated by pro-government groups. If the intent was to dispirit Agnieszka, it didn’t work. “It was a great publicity for the movie because the people massively went to the theatres,” she remarks, with a wry smile.

The here and now

Green Border doesn’t depict Lukashenko just as Mr. Jones doesn’t depict Stalin. Instead, we see how the whims of tyrannical governments weigh themselves on ordinary people. Considering that so many of her most famous works are set in the past, I wondered why Agnieszka wanted to root her new film so firmly in the present day. 

“I made several movies about the Holocaust and the crimes against humanity made in the twentieth century and I’ve felt for some time that the egg of the serpent is growing again,” she replies when I ask her this. “Maybe it’s too late to change it or maybe it’s the very last moment when we can still stop that fatality. So I feel I have to talk about it using the language I have, a cinematic language.” 

Watching Green Border, I felt that its cinematic language was in fact bilingual. Holland’s film, with its black and white cinematography and forest setting, has the feel of a World War Two espionage. But Green Border is firmly concerned with the here and now. A final scene flashes forward to 2022 following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and shows the relative ease with which Ukrainians moved across borders into other European countries. The implication is clear. 

Yet, as Agnieszka tells me, the film is not just an indictment of the present; it’s a warning for the future. “I really believe that the future depends on our attitudes,” she asserts, “because migration will not stop. Even with walls and even with violence, which will be much bigger than the violence on on the Belarusian border. On some borders, you have terrible violence already. With the climate catastrophe it will accelerate in the next few years.” 

This comment resonated with me; whilst watching the film, I couldn’t help but imagine what the refugee crises of the future might look like. The climate crisis immediately came to mind. 

There’s no shortage of problems in the world today. I wanted to know, as a filmmaker who makes overtly political films, whether Holland believes that cinema can change a political situation. “No,” she says. “I don’t believe that one film can change a difficult, global situation. But it can change the sensibility of some people, and every single person counts.”

Our time was nearly up, but I still had a burning question I wanted to ask. A critique of many European ‘art-house’ films (a term I fundamentally hate, it must be said) is that they do little to bring about change. Rather, they are watched and applauded by a liberal elite who attend festivals like Venice, and are forgotten about by the time the next screening starts. So before we said goodbye, I asked what she would say to young people today, who are fearful of the future and who want to build a peaceful, equitable alternative.

“I think that they cannot be fearful in the first place. Fear is not a good reason to do anything.”

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