How a Controversial New Movie Puts a Human Face to the Refugee Crisis

As the international refugee crisis was wobbling past its tipping point in late 2021, a small patch of no-man’s-land between two Eastern European nations was turning into a hot spot. Migrants who were fleeing turmoil in the Middle East and parts of Africa had been told that they could find a way into Europe via Belarus. The rumors were that the country’s president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, was touting easily accessible tourist visas as a safer alternative than trying to make the arduous, dangerous journey by boat. Once there, they could cross the forested area shared by both nations and enter into Poland. It was apparently a ploy by Lukashenko, whose country was not a member of the European Union, to throw his neighboring country, which was, into chaos. Poland’s response was to form what it dubbed “an exclusion zone,” protected by barbed wire and policed by border guards.

Day after day, refugees were rounded up by Polish security forces, were often beaten and abused, and were forced to go back over the wire and into the Belarusian woods. Belarus soldiers would then round up these same people, often beating and abusing them, and make them go over the wire back into Poland. Mortality rates were high. Trying to claim asylum only made things worse.

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A cry of rage and plea for compassion that blazed through the festival circuit last year — and the cause of much controversy in its country of origin — Green Border is Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland’s attempt to examines this crisis from a variety of viewpoints. Not surprisingly, the movie itself has generated a panoply of responses comparable to a shaft of light filtered through a prism; it’s been called a masterpiece, a massive misstep, a necessary counterpoint to Poland’s attempt to demonize and dehumanize those seeking shelter on their grounds, an anti-Polish screed and the equivalent of Nazi propaganda. Holland has been denounced by the country’s ruling party and received a litany of death threats. What this drama is, at its essence, is the sort of work of art that refuses to whitewash a collective atrocity nor ignore the fact that both its perpetrators and its victims are human beings. You can see why this might anger those who’d prefer, for political reasons, that their constituents view refugees as something less than people. You also understand why Holland’s movie is the perfect antidote to that poisonous train of thought. (It opens in NY on June 21st, LA on June 28th, and hopefully as many other cities as possible right after that.)

It starts with a family of migrants, comprised of Bashir (Jalal Altawil), his wife Amina (Dalia Naous), their three children and Bashir’s elderly father (Mohamad Al Rashi). His brother lives in Sweden, and has paid for his relatives’ trip in order to join him. They just have to get to Poland first, where a taxi has been arranged to meet them. An Afghan teacher, Leila (Behi Djanati Atai), asks if she can tag along; her brother has connections that she’s hoping will lead to asylum. Their transport is stopped by troops at the border, and the group is forced to flee. What happens next plays out like the grimmest of fairy tales, as travelers in a forest find themselves surrounded by wolves, some more rabid than others, snarling at them on all sides.

Behi Djanati Atai, center, in ‘Green Border.’

Agata Kubis

During one of the more unsettling encounters that the family have with both the Belarusian and the Polish soldiers — which is truly saying something; Green Border does not shy away from depicting the violence used against migrants, notably children and pregnant women, in a harsh, unvarnished manner — Holland’s camera lingers on one young man’s face for a few extra beats. He is Jan (Tomasz Wlosok), a border guard who doesn’t seem as callous or knee-jerk racist as his colleagues. Holland lets us see this nightmarish situation not just through his eyes but through the lens of the institution that employs him, from a commander’s insistence that the refugees are agents of Putin smuggling “pedophile and zoophile” material into the country to the military mandates that meets requests with asylum with immediate detainment and deportment. Jan’s struggling with the assignment, to say the least. Again, we’re reminded that every participant in this stand-off between governments is a pawn, and everyone loses a little bit of their soul no matter what side they’re on.

Indeed, for “propaganda” that Poland’s officials have gone after for being anti-Polish, the movie sure goes out of its way to portray its country’s citizens as sympathetic to those trying to find a new home in Europe as much as it details an overall apathy to the crisis. Yes, there are those who blindly consume, digest and parrot back toxic talking points, and one supporting character who’s probably a stand-in for many Poles (and definitely a lot of non-Poles) when she says she can’t get involved “because I have to live my life.” Yet the back half of Green Border introduces us to a number of local activists providing food, medicine, and aid to those caught in the crossfire, including Marta (Monika Frajczyk), one such group’s leader who doubles as as an exposition handler for how human-rights advocates are often undercut and left observing helplessly on the sidelines. It also gives us a radicalized every-woman in the form of Julia (veteran Polish actor Maja Ostaszewska), who goes from bystander who talks the talk to potential enemy of the state who walks the walk. “I thought you were just a common, petty liberal who was looking to boost your self-esteem,” one activist says. “I have good self-esteem,” Julia replies. “Otherwise, I agree with you.”


The cinematography, by Holland’s longtime collaborator Tomasz Naumiuk, is stark black-and-white; Green Border‘s politics, however, are anything but. Holland does not try to simplify an ongoing series of exoduses causing reverberations all around the world, as more are forced to flee war zones and less are able to find sustainable ways to take these displaced masses in. All she knows is that when you try to remove the human element from the equation, all is already lost.

There’s a small side story that’s slotted into the movie’s narrative-go-round near the end, in which three African teens end up finding a temporary home and bond with their Polish peer over a mutual love of hip-hop. In any other film, such a sequence might read as Pollyanna-ish. Here’s, it’s a much-needed glimmer at the end of a seemingly endless tunnel. The film then drops a coda that pivots focus to those leaving the Ukraine in droves, which suggests that the problem isn’t one country, one set of refugees or one border. Green Border refuses to let the world outside of Poland and Belarus off the hook. But it also reminds you that, while the movies are a lot of things to a lot of people, they have the ability to do what Roger Ebert astutely pointed out as one of the forms’ best qualities years ago: act as machines of empathy. All Holland asks here is that viewers contemplate this headline-generating tragedy happening “over there” from the point of view of those within it. After you’ve sat through this devastating film, it’s impossible not to.