“Green Border” – Withering [MOVIE REVIEW]

Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber

Agnieszka Holland, the fabled director of “Europa Europa” about a young Jewish boy’s survival in Nazi Germany, has set her laser focus on the migrant crisis in Poland. “Green Border” won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival as well as a number of nominations and awards around the world. Most Polish film critics were outraged that Poland did not choose this film as their entry for Best International Film at the Oscars. It is easy to see why the government submitted a lesser but more palatable film, “The Peasants.” Instead, “Io Capitano,” Italy’s submission that explored the difficulties faced by illegal migrants trying to overcome the enormous difficulties placed in their way told that story. “Io Capitano,” despite some of the horrors it portrayed, is a much more palatable film, with a narrative, identifiable villains and uplifting ending. “Green Border” is one of the most relentlessly depressing and horrifying films I have ever experienced. That is not to say it is without worth; it is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking. Unfortunately eschewing the hard and fast rule that all drama should be tempered with some humor or, at the very least, some lighter moments, “Green Border” is almost impossible to watch.

Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

The floodgates of illegal migration were opened during the 2015 civil war in Syria when millions of citizens were displaced under Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on dissidents. Syrians seeking asylum in Europe joined those from Africa searching for a better life. “Green Border” tracks the situation that occurred when Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarussian dictator, sent out propaganda that migrants arriving in Belarus could obtain easy passage into Poland, a member of the EU, where they would receive asylum. This was a political move on his part to show Poland in a negative light because he knew full well that what was awaiting the migrants was a horror show when they tried illicitly crossing the swampy forest that separated Belarus from Poland. To inflame the situation further, Lukahenko spread the rumor that these migrants were, in reality, human terrorist missiles infiltrating their borders. In so doing, he successfully dehumanized these migrants, many of them fleeing ISIS and certain death, making it easier for border guards on both sides to torture them as they became pawns in an escalating game of abuse. Because some  ISIS terrorists infiltrated groups of migrants that were accepted into Europe during the first wave in 2015, there was enough credibility to Lukashenko’s claim to spread the fear and chaos he was seeking.

Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber

The citizens of Poland, devouring government propaganda that these migrants were terrorists, pedophiles, criminals and riddled with disease, were terrified at the prospect of these dark skinned invaders and looked the other way at the methods their police and military used to rid their borders of such vermin. Telling this story in chapters, Holland first presents us with “The Family,” a Syrian father who bears the scars of a beating at the hands of ISIS, his wife, a baby, and their young son. They have already “booked” passage through Belarus on a van that picks them up at the airport, allowing an Afghani refugee to join them. It is a ruse because, arriving at a checkpoint, the driver demands an additional $300, something the Afghani woman pays, and then abandons them in the forest. Using the GPS on one of their phones, they find themselves in Poland. Their celebration is short-lived as they face the gestapo tactics of guards roaming the woods. So begins the human game of ping pong where they are beaten and then thrown over the barbed wire border demarcation back into Belarus where they will be tortured, ridiculed and beaten by Belarussian guards, intent on stealing from them and inflicting more pain before they toss them back over the border. It is here that they encounter migrants from Africa who, like them, are looking for asylum. At night they will again cross into Poland where they will again face the murderous guards who have been instructed by their bosses to inflict as much pain as possible and throw them back over the border. And so it continues.

In a second chapter, a small band of human rights workers is introduced. Helping migrants and crossing over into the “exclusion” zone is a criminal offense, but one they are compelled to do. Sympathetic to the migrants’ plight and hiding on the Polish side of the forest, they take down information, filling out the asylum paperwork that will, ultimately, lead to nothing. It is a vicious circle because the paperwork can be filed but without the person applying, there can be no hearing, and the person cannot appear because the moment they file the paperwork the border guards toss them back over the barbed wire into Belarus. And so it continues.

Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber

A third chapter introduces us to Julia, a psychologist, who is drawn into the plight of the migrants almost by accident. Previously a bystander whose moral compass may be on the right side but the struggle is still abstract for her, she is drawn into helping the human rights workers. When she sees the border guards’ brutality close up and is arrested, she becomes single minded of purpose to provide aid in whatever way she can.

Although there are scant happy endings here, one must look at the example of one guard in particular who, increasingly faced with the reality of the torture that is being sanctioned and the efforts to dehumanize these poor souls, removes himself from the action, taking a less intrusive role. But one guard questioning the government philosophy that these migrants are arriving to destroy Poland does not a movement make. 

Holland’s mission is to put a human face on the migration crisis faced by Europe. It must be noted that the other EU countries seemed to be fully aware of the situation in Poland and did nothing to staunch the flow of blood seeping from those borders. As long as the illegal migrants stayed in Poland, or better yet, in Belarus, they could look the other way. 

There are heroes in this story and too many villains to count, although it is the national governments and the dehumanization campaign that should take the bulk of the blame. That the border guards and military are staffed with sadists is less to the point than the national fever that condones these actions.

Character development is excellent; the cinematography places you inside the forest and into the swamps. Still, in the end, regardless of how excellent this film is in its portrayal of the human rights crisis, it is relentlessly depressing and graphic. This is not a movie for the faint of heart but probably must be seen if you are straddling the fence on this issue where humans, not just the tortured, have become the pawns in a cruel governmental game of chess where there will never be a winner.

Opening June 28 at the Laemmle Royal.



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