"Green Border": A politically charged film about Poland’s migrant crisis

Agnieszka Holland’s latest work has sparked a political backlash in Poland, but this thought-provoking film highlights the harrowing realities of life along the Polish-Belarusian border.
Green Border is a black and white drama by Agnieszka Holland about individual fates in the Polish-Belarusian border area.

By Valeriya Safronova

Valeriya Safronova is a Vienna-based reporter covering the arts, gender and news

14 Feb 2024

Green Border, a film directed by Polish director Agnieszka Holland, tells the stories of people involved in a crisis on the border between Belarus and Poland that has left more than four dozen migrants dead and many more missing since 2021. Refugees, desperate to enter the European Union via the Białowieża Forest between Belarus and Poland, have found themselves trapped between the two countries instead, pawns in a conflict between the Polish government and Belarus.

Equipped with little food, water or medicine, and sleeping outside in temperatures that can fall below zero, many of them people have sustained hypothermia, infections, severe concussions, dehydration and exhaustion.

Despite their plight, the migrants are seen by some in Poland as nothing more than weapons in a political battle. In one scene in the film, a senior member of the Polish border guard says to a class of new recruits that asylum seekers “aren’t people, they’re live bullets.” They are weapons, he says, used by Russian president Vladimir Putin and the authoritarian president of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, against Poland.

Though the film is fictional, the man’s on-screen words ring eerily true to life. During Poland’s election campaign in October, ministers from the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party echoed similar lines, describing Middle Eastern migrants who were trying to cross into Poland as weapons in a “special operation” devised by the Kremlin.

Green Border, shot in black and white, premiered to critical acclaim this summer, earning the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. It was released in Belgium on 7 February.

The film brings depth and humanity to people directly involved in the migrant crisis by following several characters, their stories divided into chapters that sometimes intersect: a family of migrants stranded in the forest on the Polish-Belarusian border; a new border guard, Jan, struggling with the morality, or lack thereof, of his job; and a therapist who joins a group of guerilla activists operating on the edges of the law after witnessing a refugee child’s death.

“We wanted to be very realistic, especially when we’re dealing with such a hot political issue in Poland,” Holland tells The Parliament. She, alongside fellow screenwriters Gabriela Łazarkiewicz-Sieczko and Maciej Pisuk, interviewed activists, refugees, local doctors and border guards while developing the script. “The most difficult part was talking to the border guards,” Holland says. “It was very painful and very difficult for them, and they were afraid to talk.”

Holland felt those efforts were rewarded when she received a letter from a border guard after he’d seen the film. “He wrote that what we’re showing is pure reality, and that the situation is often even worse than the scenes in our movie,” Holland explains, adding that the sender identified with the main border guard. “He had similar dilemmas and pain and was drinking and screaming his guts out to relieve the frustration and post-traumatic shock.”

In September, when the film was released in Poland, its searing realness and unflinching depictions of violence perpetrated by both Polish and Belarussian border police struck a chord, sparking attacks from members of the PiS party, who called it “anti-Polish”, “Nazi propaganda” and “shameful, repulsive and disgusting”.

Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister at the time, wrote on Facebook that the film was an attempt “to discredit us in the West and divert attention from Poland’s glorious and crucial role in helping the fighting in Ukraine.”

Holland expected criticism, but not, she says, “an orchestrated hate campaign” from the country’s highest authorities. “They were comparing me with Hitler, Stalin, Putin, Goebbels; calling me a traitor to the nation,” she says.

The attacks, which occurred last autumn, seemed designed to raise support for the PiS party ahead of elections in October. The party, which had ruled Poland since 2015, hoped to mobilise voters with its anti-migration platform. The party won the highest number of votes in the October election, but ultimately lost its hold on power after opponents united to form a majority.

The attacks on Green Border are not Holland’s first experience of suppression in her home country. A Woman Alone, a film about a woman’s life under communism in Poland, was banned in the country during a period of martial law imposed between 1981 and 1983. Holland, who lived in France at the time, was refused re-entry into Poland for years.

Belarus, 2021 Migrants collect drinking water at the Polish-Belarus border, near Grodno
Belarus, 2021 Migrants collect drinking water at the Polish-Belarus border, near Grodno

As a director, Holland, who is still based in France, is used to dealing with difficult topics. Her 1985 film, Angry Harvest, about an Austrian man who conceals a Jewish woman from the Nazis and then imprisons her, was nominated for a best foreign language film Oscar. Her 1990 film, Europa Europa, which follows a Jewish orphan passing as a non-Jewish German during the Holocaust, earned Holland a Golden Globe award, as well as an Oscar nomination.

Despite the blowback from authorities, Green Border has been embraced by viewers in Polish cinemas. “The Q&As after the screenings turned into some sort of collective psychotherapy,” Holland recalls. “I think it was important to the people to speak in a different language about the problem – not through politics or the hateful glasses of propaganda that dehumanised those people, but from a human point of view.”

In recent years, Poland has seen waves of migrants enter the country through the Belarusian border and from Ukraine. The crisis on the country’s border with Belarus began in 2021, when local travel agents in countries like Iraq, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan and Cuba began encouraging people to enter the EU via Belarus’s border with Poland. The Belarussian government instituted an easy tourist visa programme that provided further encouragement. Flights from Middle Eastern countries to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, doubled in the autumn of 2021.

In the same period, human rights organisations and newspapers reported that Poland was ignoring asylum requests and illegally and violently pushing migrants back into Belarus, using water cannons and tear gas. In Belarus, migrants were beaten and detained, then coerced into trying to cross the border into Poland again, according to reports. Local law enforcement officials did not allow them to return home or go elsewhere in Belarus. Trapped in limbo in the Białowieża Forest, these migrants had no access to necessities like food, water, shelter and medicine, causing death, illness and injury. 

They were comparing me with Hitler, Stalin, Putin, Goebbels…calling me a traitor to the nation

Poland and the EU accused Belarus of purposely delivering refugees to the Union’s doorstep to sow chaos. Belarus responded that Poland was breaking international laws by pushing migrants back instead of allowing them to apply for asylum.

Eventually, Poland erected a 187-kilometre-long barbed wire fence to prevent further incursions, and blocked access to the area around the border to journalists, volunteers and humanitarian aid organisations. On the Belarusian side, only security and military personnel were allowed access to the area around the border.

The crisis appeared to cool off in November 2021 after some airlines operating in the Middle East stopped flights into Belarus. But in 2022, Human Rights Watch said that refugees continued to die on the border, while local news organisations reported that migrants have found other routes into Belarus, sometimes aided by local smugglers.

Today, with 200 migrants still missing and at least 49 dead, and a similar situation developing on Finland’s border with Russia, Holland’s film is an urgent call to action, and an evocative reminder that behind the headlines and political ploys, there are real people facing real suffering.

“The situation on the border hasn’t changed,” Holland says. “It’s not some ancient history; it’s still going on.”

Agnieszka Holland’s latest work has sparked a political backlash in Poland, but this thought-provoking film highlights the harrowing realities of life along the Polish-Belarusian border
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