Review: 'Green Border' is an unflinching look at Poland's migrant crisis, one with global resonance

The luckless souls inhabiting Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s “Green Border” have little light in their eyes. A grim drama about Europe’s refugee crisis (a subject that’s been explored in equally superb recent Oscar-nominated films like “Flee” and “Io Capitano”), the movie chronicles this labyrinthine tragedy from three disparate perspectives: those of a migrant family, a ragtag group of activists and a morally blind border guard.

And yet, their despairing expressions are the same. The purpose of such films is to attach a human face to unimaginable tragedies, to put us in the shoes of society’s most vulnerable, but what’s most striking is how Holland extends that approach to everyone her camera captures, whether the oppressors or the oppressed. To varying degrees, each character has been undone by this crisis; all of them are collateral damage at the mercy of something larger and more insidious just out of view.

Set in October 2021 on the border between Poland and Belarus — the border between democracy and dictatorship — and shot in black and white, “Green Border” opens with a family of Syrian refugees, led by father Bashir (Jalal Altawil), on a flight landing in Belarus. Three generations, tired but hopeful, will be making their way to Poland with the ultimate goal of reuniting with a relative in Sweden. Another passenger, an older Afghan woman named Leila (Behi Djanati Atai), who, like them, is fleeing war for sanctuary in the European Union, attaches herself to Bashir’s family to have companions while navigating what might be an arduous journey.

We quickly learn just how arduous. After being picked up at the airport by a nondescript van, Bashir, Leila and the rest are stopped at a security checkpoint in the middle of the forested countryside. Sudden distant gunfire sends them scrambling toward a barbwire border fence, their luggage unceremoniously flung over the barrier by guards as the van speeds away. Welcome to Poland — except, soon, local authorities violently force them back into Belarus. Nobody wants these foreigners, unless they can be bled dry financially, armed soldiers demanding bribes for necessities such as water.

The film’s second narrative strand concerns Jan (Tomasz Włosok), an amiable Polish border guard brainwashed by his superiors into assuming that all refugees are secretly terrorists plotting to destroy Poland. (“One mistake,” Jan’s commander warns during a briefing, “and in six months we’ll have a bomb on the Warsaw subway.”) While Bashir and his children run for their lives, Jan is about to start a family with his young wife, trying not to be bothered by the plight of the outsiders he’s successfully othered in his head.

Lastly, Holland introduces us to Julia (Maja Ostaszewska), a widowed Polish psychiatrist who vows to dedicate herself to helping refugees find safe passage. However, her friends aren’t as willing to stick their necks out: As one supposed fellow liberal Pole tells her after refusing to loan Julia her van, “What if they catch you and tie it to me?” It’s not just callous border guards who have hardened their hearts.

Holland, a politically outspoken filmmaker who has plumbed the darkness of the Holocaust (“Europa Europa,” “In Darkness”), views this modern humanitarian crisis as equally deplorable. And the three-time Oscar nominee, who turned 75 in November, has lost none of her anger or willingness to provoke. “Green Border” condemns her homeland’s abusive behavior toward migrants. It resulted in the film being attacked ahead of its Venice premiere by the Polish right-wing government, which recklessly and ludicrously compared it to Nazi propaganda.

Happily, some of those government officials were recently defeated at the polls, while “Green Border” remains unbowed: a brutal document about a seemingly hopeless situation. Indeed, when the idealistic Julia teams up with some experienced young activists — including pragmatic leader Marta (Monika Frajczyk) — she discovers the realities of trying to make a difference. No matter these good samaritans’ efforts, refugees will drown in swamps. Others are too heavy to carry to safety and constant border patrols make it nearly impossible to escape detection. They can’t rescue everyone. It’s about picking their battles, many of which they’ll lose.

Across the separate plot lines, there’s a dourness to the characters, underlined by the spare performances. Holland has cast actors who often share similarities with their roles: Altawil is himself a Syrian refugee, while Ostaszewska has aided migrants at the border. The script, co-written by Holland, draws from actual incidents, although the film’s snaking story lacks showy moments or big speeches. Similarly, cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk’s handheld monochrome images are pristine while avoiding self-conscious prettiness.

Instead, what lingers is a collective misery and the invisibly masterful choreography of chaos, rage and death. As one might expect, those narrative threads will occasionally intertwine, sometimes leading to too-tidy dramatic ironies that run counter to the blunt-force shock of what otherwise unfolds. “Green Border” is most riveting when it succumbs to the senselessness of the world it portrays, the characters futilely battling an overarching system of oppression and intolerance. If Altawil articulates Bashir’s panic and fear, Włosok is equally adept at capturing Jan’s gradual moral awakening: His complicity, which has guaranteed him a steady paycheck, grows into a spiritual cancer that eats away at him.

Clearly, even an army of Julias isn’t enough to repair the societal rot. “Green Border” also examines the everyday instances of cowardice and fear that perpetuate this migrant crisis. It’s the farmer who shows Leila kindness but then reports her to the cops. It’s the woman at the grocery store who’s adamant that refugees don’t deserve compassion. It’s the casual bigotry and distrust disguised as national security.

Holland’s heart breaks for Bashir and Leila, but she never reduces them to simplistically pitiable figures. She teases out the flickers of Jan’s developing conscience and his realization that he’s as disposable as the migrants he’s paid to dispatch. These atrocities are ongoing and, like with Jan, Holland wants to challenge viewers to feel complicit because of our inaction.

“Why are you doing this to us?” an anguished Leila screams at one point at indifferent border guards. No one responds. Whether it’s Poland’s border or one closer to our own, that silence is deafening and damning.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top