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“Green Border” reviewed

Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border opens on a wide shot of an endless stretch of trees — the densely forested, almost primeval zone marking the boundary between Belarus and Poland where much of the film will take place. Slowly, the color drains out of the image and the green frontier becomes a forbidding, black-and-white expanse. Holland has said that she chose black and white for her epic refugee drama, winner of international awards and a controversial hit in her homeland (where it was denounced by Poland’s then-right-wing government), to give it a timeless quality. But as we watch the color vanish from the screen, we might be reminded of something else: a distillation, a reduction of the image (and all that follows) to its dark essence. Green Border forces us to confront raw human behavior, shorn of all niceties and posturing.

The specific period that Holland has chosen to tackle was itself the result of a cynical political scheme to exploit a sad underlying reality. In 2021, in response to the European Union’s sanctions in the wake of his sham election the year before, Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko threatened to flood the continent with refugees. He then encouraged Middle Eastern, African, and Central Asian migrants to travel to Belarus and cross over into the E.U. via his borders. He wanted to not just punish Europe but to lay bare what he saw as the hypocrisy behind its promises of liberal tolerance.

One could say he succeeded, to some extent. So began a game of uniquely cruel political football, with real, terrified humans caught in the middle, as Polish authorities immediately started sending the refugees back across the barbed wire, only for them to then be forced back into Poland by Belarusian soldiers, often at gunpoint, and so on. Among the many interviews Holland (along with co-writers Maciej Pisuk and Gabriela Lazarkiewicz) did as part of her extensive research prior to making Green Border was one with a man who had crossed the border 26 times. “Everything that happens in the film is documented,” she told my colleague Rachel Handler last year. “Nothing is invented.”

That’s a terrifying statement, because the cruelties inflicted on people in this picture are beyond evil: starving refugees forced into bribes and robbed blind; thirsty men forced to drink broken glass; children torn from their families; sick old men beaten to a pulp; a heavily pregnant woman tossed over a fence like a sack of potatoes; the freezing and the wounded left to die in the cold. Holland is a humanist not a sadist, so she doesn’t dwell on these actions. But she also doesn’t flinch from letting us witness such horrors amid the intimate urgency of her filmmaking.

This is a director who over the course of her career has been particularly attuned to the plight of the stateless and homeless, to the in-between souls who feel like outsiders everywhere. A critic of Poland’s communist regime, she became one of the country’s more accomplished filmmakers before emigrating to western Europe, where she made movies like Europa Europa (1990) and Angry Harvest (1985) about desperate people on the run. Such subjects make for great drama, to be sure, but Holland’s cinema is also characterized by the breadth of her insight. Her camera is at home among the downtrodden as well as those who tread on them. She understands the impassioned agitator as well as the impotent observer.

Green Border is separated into multiple chapters, each offering a different point of view. First, we follow a group of refugees, a Syrian family and an Afghan teacher (Behi Djanati Atai), as they arrive by airplane in Belarus, anticipating that they will eventually make their way to Sweden and elsewhere. After we observe their horrific treatment at the border, Holland switches to the day-to-day life of Jan (Tomasz Wlosok), a young Polish cop with a baby on the way. We see the indoctrination he and others receive from their superiors. “These are not people, they are live bullets,” a bigwig tells the assembled troops, framing their efforts as part of a broader struggle against Poland’s external enemies. We see the grinning bluster of the border guards, who overcome any anxieties they might have by drinking themselves into oblivion and cultivating particularly hard fronts. (As part of her research, Holland spoke to numerous border guards, some of whom secretly confided to her their disgust at what they were being asked to do.)

The director’s vision is not entirely without hope, though it’s a rather bleak kind of hope. One chapter follows a group of activists who work to try and meet the refugees’ basic needs, all while trying to stay within the limits of the law: They can’t enter the protected zone where most of the aforementioned atrocities are taking place; they can’t house or move any of the refugees; if they request medical assistance, the border guard must accompany the doctors, which in many cases simply means that the patient will be tossed back to Belarus, no matter how sick they may be. We then meet Julia (Maja Ostaszewska), a widowed psychotherapist, who comes across a woman and a child drowning in a swamp in the woods one night and gets involved in ways that go beyond what the activists are willing to do. But Julia is not the norm. When she asks to borrow a friend’s car to help transport some refugees, the friend refuses — despite declaring that she has solid progressive bona fides just like Julia.

Holland’s structure allows us to experience these different perspectives while continuing to track the characters’ progression, but her approach also comes with a pointed poison pill: We lose sight of these people for stretches of time — and when we return to them, we’re often shocked to our core. One major character drops out of the picture only to show up later, briefly, as a dead body in the night, anonymous to everyone else onscreen but not to us. It’s a particularly savvy move on Holland’s part. With chilling recognition, we realize that for those of us watching at home, such soulless glimpses are the norm. These humans come to us as corpses, statistics, distant images of wrecked families on street corners, men caught by cops and captured in the bright, brief glare of cell-phone cameras. By replicating the process of dehumanization, the film’s form forces us to confront our own inaction. Green Border is unforgettable, in all senses of the word.