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Venice 2023. Review of Agnieszka Holland’s film “The Green Border”

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Third time lucky? On Saturday, we will find out whether Agnieszka Holland – one of the most appreciated Polish filmmakers – will be appreciated in the Main Competition of the Venice International Festival. And here’s why. In “The Green Border” Holland once again proved that, like few others, she is able to look at global problems through the prism of the experiences of ordinary people. At the same time, she created her best film since “Europa Europa”. Review by Tomasz-Marcin Wrona.

“The Green Border” is Agnieszka Holland’s 20th feature film as a director and one of her best. Its world premiere took place on Tuesday as part of the Main Competition of the 80th Venice International Film Festival. This is the third Polish film to be included in the competition for the Golden Lion. The two earlier ones were “Olivier, Olivier” and “Juliet Comes Home”.

Holland: cinema must ask questions

In her over fifty-year career, Holland has repeatedly proven that like few others, she can talk about current problems by looking at them through fate or elections units, trying to avoid simple, superficial assessments. – Cinema must be a partner for the truth and ask important questions. I don’t think it’s possible to answer them, but the questions we ask are our strength, Holland said in a recent interview with Variety magazine.

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This is also the case with “The Green Border”. In her latest film, the director looks at one of the biggest global challenges – migration crisis. Breaking human rights, wars and armed conflicts, hunger, lack of access to drinking water, the ongoing climate catastrophe are just some of the factors forcing people from various parts of the world to seek safe shelter outside their homelands. Although the Geneva Convention of 1951 describes, among other things, procedures related to the admission of refugees, not everyone who is forced to flee from their own country has a chance for safe shelter.

The reference point for Holland’s latest plot is the humanitarian crisis in the areas near the Polish-Belarusian border, which was cynically caused by the Belarusian dictator in 2021. Alyaksandr Lukashenko. Initially, across the border with Lithuania, and then with Latvia and Poland, Belarusian services began to illegally transfer refugees from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria en masse, attracted by smugglers to Belarus with the promise of easy access to the European Union. This inhumane provocation, which involves using people as a tool to destabilize international relations, is another version of the refugee crisis that Europe has been facing unsuccessfully since 2014.


“The Green Border” by Agnieszka Holland. What is the movie about?

The script of “The Green Border” is the result of Holland’s cooperation with Gabriela Łazarkiewicz-Sieczko and Maciej Pisuk. Łazarkiewicz-Sieczko, privately the daughter of directors Magdalena and Piotr Łazarkiewicz and Holland’s niece, has been professionally associated with film for at least ten years. However, “The Green Border” is her debut as a co-writer of a full-length feature. Pisuk became known in 2012 as the screenwriter of the film “I am God”, directed by Leszek Dawid.

Still from the movie “The Green Border”Agata Kubis/Kino Świat

The creation of the text for “The Green Border” was preceded by hundreds of hours of consultations, conversations and documentation. Its authors talked to, among others, refugees and residents of border areas – including areas where a dozen or so months ago state of emergency – representatives of the border guard, activists and experts in the field of human rights and immigration.

In his film, Holland asks about human dignity, about reducing man to the role of a “living bullet”, and considers the border between good and evil, humanity and animalism. The fact that the director used events from the Polish-Belarusian border does not mean that she focuses on them. This is a starting point for her to ask questions about the condition of contemporary Europe, or Western democracy more broadly. The filmmaker avoids specifying the time of the story in order to highlight the common experiences of refugee people that we have been witnessing for almost a decade. We can easily recall recordings from various parts of Europe in which we saw people camping in makeshift camps or drowning in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Which obviously leads to the conclusion that, as Europeans, we have not found a solution to the humanitarian crisis for years.

READ ALSO: Gdynia Film Festival 2021. Agnieszka Holland on the “absurd” state of emergency

Holland: I don’t have any problem with the Border Guard, I have a problem with the authorities (“Kropka nad i” TVN24 on April 18, 2023)TVN24

Holland: The humanitarian crisis exposes our European racism

The film’s plot is divided into several parts, and in each of them different characters whose experiences intersect in some way come to the fore. Thanks to this, Holland looks at the humanitarian crisis from different perspectives. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher’s famous statement from 1981, it can be said that a humanitarian crisis is a humanitarian crisis and, regardless of its causes, it should not be part of a cynical political game. After all, human rights are universal and universal, they are not part of any ideology, and their observance is beyond question.

The filmmaker shows that specific brutal actions of the Belarusian and Polish services have a direct and irreversible impact on the lives of individual people. Holland puts his heroes and heroines in situations where they have to make extreme decisions. She also makes it clear that she is not interested in big politics or any views. Guided by universal and fundamental humanitarianism, he looks at people and their reactions, decisions and emotions.

And emotions are key here, because it is in this layer that Holland uses his strongest weapons. Like a cluster bomb, “The Green Border” hits the most sensitive points long after the session ends. It resonates with the relevance of the questions asked: Where is the limit of deciding about the dignity and life of another person? Where is the limit of human humanity? Why don’t people learn from history? What distinguishes some refugees from others? What does the refugee crisis that has been going on since 2014 say about us? In the name of what are refugees victims of brutal manifestations of force used against them?

In the director’s description of “The Green Border” published in “Variety”, Holland referred to “Europe of Europe”, her film from over 30 years ago, explaining that the repeated title was to emphasize the two faces of the European tradition. “The Europe of our aspirations, the cradle of cultures and civilizations, the rule of law, democracy, human rights, equality and fraternity, but also Europe as the cradle of the greatest crimes against humanity, selfishness and hatred,” she explained.

In her text for Variety, the director compares how refugees from Ukraine are treated and how those coming from outside Europe are treated. “Again, many refugees are wandering in the forests of the Polish-Belarusian border. They are sent back to Belarus again, they die again. The oppressive attitude towards activists who help them is getting worse, and the behavior of Polish border guards – the same ones who with warmth and empathy take Ukrainian children through border – is becoming more and more brutal. This difference in treatment of two different groups of war refugees brutally reveals what we try to hide: our European racism,” Holland wrote.

Agnieszka Holland on the set of the film “The Green Border”Agata Kubis/Kino Świat

Memorable characters

One of the strongest points of “The Green Border” is its cast. Holland invited, among others, Iranian-French film and theater actress Behi Djanati Atai and Syrian actors Jalal Altawil and Mohamed Al Rashi to participate in the film. Once again, Maja Ostaszewska demonstrated her extraordinary talent by creating a multidimensional, non-obvious character of a psychologist, accidentally thrown into the vortex of events on the border. She is brilliantly played by Agata Kulesza and Maciej Stuhr. The film also features actresses and actors of the younger generation – Jaśmina Polak and Malwina Buss as activists, Tomasz Włosok as a guard.

The story, sparing in its means and enclosed in the aesthetics of magical realism, is moving in many ways. It would be a surprise if the creators of “The Green Border” left Venice empty-handed. Apart from the very topical subject matter and excellent narrative, the latest film is as good as the most famous titles of many editions of the Italian festival.

Participation in the Main Competition of the 80th Venice International Film Festival is only the beginning of the film’s world tour. Even before the end of the Venice Festival, the film will have its North American premiere in the Centrpiece section of the Toronto International Film Festival – another event belonging to the so-called Big Five, i.e. the most important film festivals in the world (along with Berlinale, Sundance and the Cannes Film Festival). At the beginning of October, the film will be presented as part of the New York Film Festival.

“The Green Border” will hit Polish cinemas on September 22.

A still from Agnieszka Holland’s film “The Green Border”Agata Kubis/Kino Świat

Main photo source: Photo Agata Kubis/Kino Świat

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