If cinema is an empathy machine, to paraphrase the late Roger Ebert, then Agnieszka Holland’s new film is a precision-crafted one.
Shot in stark black-and-white, this deeply moving, flawlessly executed multi-part drama follows refugees from various countries trying to cross the border from Belarus into Poland in 2021. With inevitably tragic consequences, they become pawns in a gruesome game of “passing the package” between guards on both sides of the title’s green border, the dividing line between EU member Poland and Russian ally Belarus.
It comes down to
A devastating dramatic triumph.
Although the violence shown is not unnecessary, the suffering is present Green Edge (Zielona granica) is painful to the touch. There is a point when a Pole, a minor character in the story, refuses to watch a video on a friend’s phone of a border guard beating a migrant; Holland’s film implicitly confronts everyone – and that includes most of us – who have ever ignored or averted yet another lamentable act of state-sponsored violence.
There is no shortage of images and re-enactments on the news and in the cinema of the pain that migrants and refugees endure on a daily basis. But Holland cunningly digs a little deeper here to explore the psyches of characters who in other stories might just be faceless heavyweights – like the Polish border guards, encouraged by an officer who makes a “moral” talk to view migrants as weapons that can be overpowered. be sent around the world. border between Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian Vladimir Putin.
Not long after the section about these soldiers and their community, the cadre retreats further to include some of their compatriots trying to help the refugees. Some of these volunteers are doctors or lawyers, but others are activists who oppose the right-wing regime of President Andrzej Duda – people who endanger their own safety, but also sometimes break the resistance through power struggles over strategies. Taken together, these braided strands form an invigorating, passionate, rigorously humanistic cinema, old-fashioned in technique but topical in subject matter.
The action begins about a year before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when migrants from war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of the Congo were encouraged by Lukashenko to use Belarus as a gateway to Poland and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. EU. But the people we meet on a Turkish plane in the first scene of the film have no idea that this was a cruel trick designed by Belarus to make the EU’s neighbors look like the bad guys if they refuse to grant asylum. grant to the refugees and get them back across the border.
On board the plane, a Syrian family of six from Harasta has managed to survive the civil war at home and hopes to make their way to Sweden via Belarus and Poland. Bashir (Jalal Altawil, himself a Syrian refugee) literally has scars on his back from a run-in with ISIS. Bashir is accompanied by his father (Mohamad Al Rashi), Bashir’s wife Amina (Dalia Naous), pre-adolescent son Nur (Taim Ajjan), his younger sister Ghalia (Talia Ajjan) and a toddler who is still nursing. The family tries to strike up a conversation with a woman sitting next to them, Leila (Behi Djanati Atai), but realize she doesn’t speak Arabic, only English and her mother tongue. Later we learn that Leila is from Afghanistan and wants to apply for asylum in Poland.
When they arrive in Belarus, the Syrian family offers to let Leila ride with them to Poland in a taxi already paid for by Bashir’s brother (Noah Meskina) in Sweden. But the driver tricks them into more money, which Leila pays, and they have to make the difficult crossing illegally at night, frightened by the sound of shooting in the distance.
When captured by Polish border guards, Leila and the Syrians are herded together with terrified refugees from other countries and sent back to Belarus, just the beginning of an increasingly brutal ordeal that sees them cross the border multiple times. They are all beaten by guards on both sides. Others in the party die from drowning in the swamps, or from exposure, shock, dehydration, or starvation. In one of the film’s most shocking scenes – one with many correlations to current events – a pregnant African woman is literally thrown over the border in what appears to be a miscarriage.
When the focus shifts to the Polish characters, it’s almost a relief at first until we see how much this hellish situation has twisted and traumatized them too. Of the guards we get to know Jan (Tomasz Wlosok) best, who is expecting a baby together with his wife (Malwina Buss, who is married to Wlosok in real life). Though Jan tenderly cares about his own wife and unborn child, he somehow struggles to convey that empathy to the pregnant refugees he meets on the job.
Psychiatrist Julia (Maja Ostaszewska), on the other hand, makes her living through empathy and fills the silence in her life with caring for patients, especially after the recent death of her husband. After helping two refugees we meet earlier in the film who become trapped in a swamp near her home, she is so horrified by the state’s treatment of them that she joins a grassroots activist cell that is committed to providing health care and advice to these people. trapped in the no man’s land-like exclusion zone near the border.
All of the above only scratches the surface of the teeming plot attributed to Maciej Pisuk, Gabriela Lazarkiewicz-Sieczko, and Holland. The latter also shares her directing credit with Kamila Tarabura and Katarzyna Warzecha, and it’s not hard to see that this panoramic drama would need additional directors to sort out all the parts and storylines. And yet it never feels brittle or fragmented, as the drama pulls it all together near the end with a coda set right after the 2022 Ukraine-Russia war begins.
Amid all the justified sympathy for the Ukrainians displaced by that conflict, there were a few quiet voices at the time who noted that the refugee crisis of a year earlier – involving people not so much like Poles and other EU citizens – don’t get close to the same exposure. Green border is a cinematic step towards rectifying that imbalance while acknowledging that thousands of people around the world have died trying to escape poverty and conflict.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (competition)
Cast: Jalal Altawil, Maja Ostaszewska, Behi Djanati Atai, Mohamad Al Rashi, Dalia Naous, Tomasz Wlosok, Malwina Buss
Production Companies: Metro Films, Astute Films, Blick Production, Marlene Film Production, Beluga Tree, CANAL+ Poland, dFLIGHTS, Czech Television, Mazovia Warsaw Film Fund
Directors: Agnieszka Holland, in collaboration with Kamila Tarabura and Katarzyna Warzecha
Screenwriters: Maciej Pisuk, Gabriela Lazarkiewicz-Sieczko, Agnieszka Holland
Producers: Marcin Wierzchoslawski, Fred Bernstein, Agnieszka Holland
Executive Producers: Mike Downey, Jeff Field, Emir Kulal Haznevi, Daniel Bergman
Co-producers: Maria Blicharska, Damien McDonald, Sarka Cimbalova, Diana Elbaum, David Ragonig, Beata Ryczkowska, Malgorzata Seck, Dominika Kulczyk
Photography Director: Tomek Naumiuk
Production designer: Katarzyna Jedrzejcsyk
Costume designer: Katarzyna Lewinska
Editor: Pavel Hrdlicka
Sound: Roman Dymny
Music: Frederic Vercheval
Casting: Paulina Krajnik, Klementyna Szymanska, Behi Djanati Atai
2 hours 42 minutes