Green Border: Agnieszka Holland explores human behaviour within a broken system in a nightmarish refugee drama

Shot in stark black and white, Agnieszka Holland’s compassionate film about the dehumanising treatment of refugees on the Belarus-Poland border interrogates the European response to the migrant crisis in all its complexity and injustice.

Maja Ostaszewska as Julia in Green Border (2023)

In the summer of 2021, the simmering tensions along the Poland-Belarus border were stoked by Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko, who offered refugees safe passage into the EU through his country. Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border is set shortly after this announcement, opening with a group of Syrian refugees on a plane descending into Minsk. “This route is a godsend,” one woman tells another, having heard horror stories of people fleeing to the EU via other routes. They have no idea what they will face when they land.

Lukashenko’s offer was not given in a spirit of magnanimity. After relations deteriorated with his European neighbours, he revealed his intention to “flood the EU with drugs and migrants”, and the migrants to whom he extended an invitation subsequently became little more than political footballs, unceremoniously pushed across the barbed wire separating Belarus and Poland by each country’s border force. Green Border captures the nightmarish absurdity of this scenario – one man says he has been forced across the wire five or six times. We might see these refugees as desperate people seeking safety with the few possessions they have left, but to the authorities they are weapons to be fired into enemy territory – one of the metaphors a stern captain uses when instructing (or indoctrinating) his young recruits. It’s this systematic dehumanisation that leads to shocking sights like a heavily pregnant woman being tossed over the border because she can’t crawl through it. “Honestly, I don’t know if I’m still human,” a refugee admits. “They made me an animal here.”

Shooting in stark, shadowy black and white, and aided by Tomasz Naumiuk’s agile camerawork, Holland gets us close to these refugees, making us share their disorientation, desperation and fear, and generating a remarkable degree of empathy. The first part of Green Border unfolds with the intensity of a thriller, as the Syrian family (led by the superb Dalia Naous and Jalal Altawil) trudge through swampy woodland, seeking food and water for their children, and knowing that any wrong turn may see them rounded up, beaten and thrown back into Belarus. 

Green Border (2023)

Many recent films have followed the subjective experience of refugees on their perilous odyssey, but Holland, who co-wrote the screenplay with Maciej Pisuk and Gabriela Łazarkiewicz-Sieczko, breaks from this narrative to find multiple entry points into the drama. We are introduced to a young Polish border guard (Tomasz Włosok) who unquestioningly follows orders but is forced to confront his own actions when his pregnant wife (Malwina Buss) sees video evidence of atrocities committed at the border. We also meet therapist Julia (Maja Ostaszewska), whose conscience is pricked by a harrowing encounter with Afghan refugee Leila (Behi Djanati Ataï) in the woods near her home. She joins a group of activists who offer medical assistance and refuge to migrants; an act that comes with its own risk, as anyone found aiding refugees faces up to eight years in prison.

Between features, Holland has worked in American TV, directing episodes of HBO’s The Wire (2004-08) and Treme (2010-13). Like David Simon, who created both shows, she wants to take a holistic view of a crisis and to explore human behaviour within a broken system. In contrast to, say, Matteo Garrone’s Oscar-nominated Io Capitano (2023) – which also followed a dangerous migrant journey, but stopped short of contemplating what would happen when they set foot in Italy – Holland tries to explore the European response to the migrant crisis in all its complexity and injustice. The film’s ambitious scope makes the second half more unwieldy, and there are areas of the narrative that could have been sharpened, but even when it missteps, the compassion and fierce indignation behind Holland’s filmmaking gives it a vital energy.

Before release, Green Border earned predictable opprobrium from Poland’s conservative government. “In the Third Reich, the Germans produced propaganda films showing Poles as bandits and murderers. Today they have Agnieszka Holland for that,” justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro said – a striking analogy to use against a Jewish filmmaker who has made films on the Holocaust, and who clearly finds echoes of that dark period in Green Border’s imagery. The Polish authorities may have seen the film as a personal attack, but Holland’s perspective is wider than that, with a pointed epilogue forcing us to question how geography, politics and race shape our response to refugees. This crisis tests the humanity of all those who encounter it, and Green Border should resonate far beyond the borders of Poland and Belarus.

 ► Green Border is in UK cinemas 21 June.