When Russia invaded Ukraine in the winter of 2022, it was widely observed how accepting bordering nations were of millions of displaced Ukrainians fleeing the war, often in stark contrast to how Europe had responded to refugees seeking asylum from the Islamic State, the dichotomy possessing an unavoidable racial component. While fair-skinned Ukrainians were embraced with open arms at ports of entry and compassionately resettled, Middle Eastern and North African refugees were either promptly deported or tossed back and forth between neighboring countries like a political football, spoken of in dehumanizing language, warehoused in ad hoc camps, beaten, and forced to scrounge for food and scamper through the wilderness like hunted animals. Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland’s new film Green Border presents the shameful chapter in recent history from the perspective of her home nation, which not only shares a border with Ukraine, but also Belarus, and found itself at ground zero of a humanitarian disaster after Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko misled thousands of asylum-seekers from Western Asia to legally fly to his country with false promises of the nation being a safe gateway to Europe (all as part of a larger, Russia-backed ploy to “flood the EU with drugs and migrants”). Holland attempts to present the crisis from 360 degrees, if not humanizing than at least contextualizing both the oppressed and their oppressors, as well as the citizenry caught in the middle. It’s a decidedly old-fashioned approach but makes for a stirring film of rare moral clarity.
We’re first introduced to a multi-generation family of six Syrians flying to Belarus with the intention of crossing into Poland on their way to stay with relatives in Sweden; indicative of the mixed messages accompanying the harrowing journey, they’re given roses by the flight attendants upon entering Belarusian airspace. Joining up with an Iraqi woman (Behi Djanati Atai) attempting to make the same crossing, the seven of them board a shuttle van at the airport, which they’ve been told has been paid to safely get them to the border. Instead, they’re driven out to the middle of the woods where they’re stopped by armed soldiers while the van driver screams at them to pay him money. With gunfire ringing out in the distance, the group, which includes three small children and an elderly patriarch (Mohamad Al Rashi), is herded under the razor wire serving as the de facto border and left to wander the snowy countryside of Poland, with no means of communicating with their loved ones (even alongside food and water, cell phone battery life quickly becomes the most valuable commodity). So begins a Kafkaesque nightmare where the group is repeatedly apprehended by first Polish then Belarusian paramilitary forces who escort the refugees — with exponentially less patience or concern for bodily harm — to the other country’s border, essentially dumping them in their neighbor’s backyard the way someone might an inconvenient bag of trash. Each time, the refugees accumulate new injuries and further degradation as the group heartbreakingly begins to splinter and winnow down.
Structured like chapters in a book, each with a different protagonist who semi-regularly intersects with the larger ensemble, Green Border spins off into a handful of plot threads. We meet Jan, a young Polish border guard (Tomasz Włosok) who’s indoctrinated by his superiors to view the migrants as a societal drain or even “living bullets” in a proxy war with Belarus. We also encounter a scrappy but well-organized network of progressive activists who provide supplies and legal support to refugees, but whose hands are tied by the law as far as directly intervening. And most inspiring, we meet Julia, a professional woman (Maja Ostaszewska) living alone near the border whose conscience won’t allow her to stand on the sidelines any longer. Presented in low contrast black and white, there’s an unblinking immediacy to the film, with Holland lingering on the cracked and blistered soles of people’s feet or the bleeding welts and gashes left by batons and barbed wire, but also on the fleeting comforts of drinking rainwater from a branch or warm clothes and hot soup, and the kindness both represent. It’s subject matter that’s lends itself to despair, and, in its darkest moments, the film is indeed almost unbearably bleak, with Holland consciously invoking holocaust imagery — bodies indifferently discarded, scared families being shoved into the back of covered trucks, jackbooted thugs wailing on the most vulnerable seemingly for their own amusement — and casting the entire situation as a bureaucratic quagmire; instilling a sense of helplessness in the the well-intentioned individuals who involve themselves or even placing them under the same crushing heel as those they would try and aid.
And yet, Green Border dares to be hopeful all the same. Perhaps the only thing that’s fallen out of favor more than “hyperlink cinema” — e.g. sprawling social issue dramas like Babel and Crash, both of which are antecedents of something like this — is unapologetic liberalism on screen. With “do-gooderism” often dismissed as ineffectual virtue signaling or a white savior narrative, there’s something decidedly “uncool” in showing people of means willing to place themselves in harm’s way by taking direct action for the benefit of others. But that’s exactly what Green Border does, challenging the notion of what it truly means to be an ally and building to a series of daring measures — including thrilling bit of misdirection which pulls together a handful of tertiary characters floating around the film’s margins — that reinforces that supportive words alone aren’t going to cut it. Despite its best efforts, tempering moments of happiness with reminders of what’s been lost along the way, it can still feel a bit too kumbaya for a situation that’s still very much a going concern on the world stage; the evolution of Włosok’s character doesn’t exactly pass the smell test either. But even then, Green Border can’t help but twist the knife, admonishing a system that encourages a hierarchy of suffering in addition to shrinking attention spans that finds the public moving on to the next tragedy while the wounds of the previous one remain unmended.