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“Green Border”: Agnieszka Holland’s New Film Shows “Impossible Choices” Facing Refugees in Europe

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Image Credit: right: Kino Lorber

The new film Green Border, from acclaimed Polish director Agnieszka Holland, dramatizes the humanitarian crisis facing millions of migrants seeking refuge in Europe. It tells the true story of how refugees from the Middle East and Africa became trapped in 2021 at the so-called green border between Poland and Belarus, through the perspectives of refugees, border guards and refugee rights activists. “Fear and the hate are so easy to be spread when our borders or our comfort is attacked by the challenge of newcomers,” warns Holland, who connects the crisis depicted in the film to Europe’s growing anti-migration political atmosphere. “Frankly, it is an incredible mess right now. And it’s going in a very dangerous direction,” she says. Green Border opens today in New York and nationwide next Friday.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We end today’s show with a new dramatic film titled Green Border about the humanitarian crisis facing millions of migrants seeking refuge in Europe. It tells the story of how refugees from the Middle East and Africa have been trapped at the so-called green border between Poland, which is part of the European Union, and Belarus, a Russian ally.

The feature film is directed by highly acclaimed, award-winning Polish director and screenwriter Agnieszka Holland. In a career spanning 50 years, she has directed more than 20 films and several television productions in countries and in languages across Europe, as well as in the U.S. and Canada.

Green Border received high praise and recognition, including the Special Jury Prize at the 2023 Venice Film Festival, but was strongly condemned by the then-far-right government in Poland. Green Border premieres today in New York at Film Forum and nationwide next Friday.

This is the film’s trailer. For our radio audience, we’ve voiced over the Polish, Arabic and French into English.

GRANDPA: [played by Al Rashi Mohamad] [translated] From Belarus we go to Poland, and then to your uncle in Sweden.

BASHIR: [played by Jalal Altawil] [translated] Remember, everything is paid for, and he’ll take you to the best border crossing.

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] What is that?

BORDER GUARD 1: [translated] Get out! Let’s go! Run!

KARCZEWSKI: [played by Slawomir Holland] [translated] This isn’t propaganda. It’s a real threat! They aren’t people. They are live bullets.

BORDER GUARD 2: [translated] Stop! Border guard!

BASHIR: No, no, no! No, no, no, no, no, no!

JULIA: [played by Maja Ostaszewska] [translated] They need to get themselves together, somewhere safe.

BASIA: [played by Agata Kulesza] [translated] You mean migrants?

JULIA: [translated] Refugees.

MARTA: [played by Monika Frajczyk] [translated] If you want to work with us, you have to accept the rules. We give food, water, medicine, but we don’t enter the exclusion zone, OK?

BORDER GUARD 3: [translated] Look, I didn’t see anything. Neither did you.

BORDER GUARD 4: [translated] What are you talking about?

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] We shouldn’t worry about issues beyond our control.

POLICE OFFICER: [translated] Show me your hands!

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] They’re keeping an eye on you.

JULIA: [translated] I know.

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] They’ll track us.

POLICE OFFICER: [translated] Give me your hands!

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] What is really going on?

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] What do you think we’re doing out there?

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] What kind of father would take his child down this road?

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] Helping is not illegal.

UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] Everything is going to be all right.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for the new film Green Border that is premiering tonight in New York City.

For more, we’re joined by Green Border’s acclaimed director, Agnieszka Holland. Her work has received a number of accolades, including being nominated for an Academy Award three times. Like Green Border, several of her previous films have centered around events that constitute crimes against humanity. Mr. Jones portrays the man-made 1930s Ukrainian famine. Europa Europa and In Darkness are based on true stories during the Holocaust. Her HBO miniseries Burning Bush focuses on the self-immolation of a 20-year-old protester following the Prague Spring. Holland was herself arrested and briefly imprisoned in Prague for her involvement in the protests at the time.

Agnieszka Holland, it is our honor to have you in our studio. Thanks so much for being here.

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Thank you. Thank you for having me here.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Green Border. Tell us about this remarkable film that deals with such a major crisis in the world today: how the world treats its refugees. In fact, refugees themselves play some of your actor — play the people in the film.

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Yeah. You know, I’m following the refugees crisis since 2015 in Europe. Of course, it’s older than that. But that crisis, as a consequence of the Syrian domestic war, triggered the big change in European mentality and in European politics. It became clear that the fear and the hate are so easy to be spread when our borders or our comfort is attacked by the challenge of newcomers. And Europe is built by the migration somehow, but in the same time, Europe is powerless when efficiently dealing with the challenge of people of different cultures, different language, different race, and so on.

So, 2015 and that first big wave of the refugees triggered the rise of the populism and extreme right in European politics, and it became quite clear that Europe became some kind of the hostage of exterior regimes, who started to use, to manipulate the corridors and numbers of refugees coming to Europe for political means. It means to destabilized Europe. On another hand, the response of the European Union politicians has been very inadequate. It means they started to play the game, practically, not only play the game and initiate the hate and fear, but also to take advantage of that game, to build their own political agenda, the electoral agenda, on the treatment and the presentation of the refugee problem. So, we became all hostages of incapacity to face the truth and to be just human and to accept and respect the laws, which are the grounds of the democracy, the human rights, the equality, solidarity, constitutions of the countries and international treaties.

So, frankly, it is an incredible mess right now. And it’s going in a very dangerous direction. Because I was doing, as you mentioned, a few films about the crimes against humanity in the '30s, ’40s of 20th century, I know and understand pretty well the mechanism, how it starts, how that dehumanization of the group of the people leads to dehumanization altogether of entire nations or races, and how easy that avalanche starts to grow and how easy it is to change the public opinion on that subject and how visible is serpent's egg which is growing.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And you’ve said, in fact, that the situation of these migrants is perhaps, quote — and I’m quoting you here — “a prequel to a drama that could lead to the moral and also political collapse of our world.” So, if you could talk about the urgency you felt in making this film and the difference of making a film where you see a crime against humanity literally unfolding before you, as against making one about the Ukrainian famine or the Holocaust several decades ago?

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Yeah, it is different urgency when I’m speaking about the past, about something which happened already, even if I did that films because I felt that they are relevant. It means that somehow, you know, that the danger didn’t disappear. It was put to sleep by a terrible experience of Second World War, and somehow we’ve been immune against that for a while, but that immunity, that vaccine started to evaporate quite a long time ago. I felt it already in the ’90s, but it became very visible to me after September 11, that it was the moment when I think the world shifted to another side somehow.

And when it came to my border, it means hundred miles or 200 miles from the place I live in Poland and I was born, when it was “my government,” even if I didn’t vote for them, but the government representing my country, which is dehumanizing people and responding to that crisis by propaganda and lie and violence, I had to speak about it, so that it was immediately. I decided like one month after the crisis started. And when the access to the zone around of the border have been blocked for the journalists, media, humanitarian organizations and medical organizations, it means it was possible to show in a documentary way what’s going on. I decided to make the fiction and to use my skills to show to the world what’s going on and also to give back the faces and voices to those who became voiceless and faceless and became just the tool of Lukashenko and Putin, on one side, and to European propaganda, on another side.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And so, if you could talk about the stories that you did tell? I mean, the film is not a documentary, but it is based on accounts that you heard in your extensive research into the film from refugees. So, the film is told from the — it’s three different parts: the refugees, the border guards and, finally, the activists. And you spoke to people who occupy all of those positions —


NERMEEN SHAIKH: — in real life as part of your research. So, if you could talk about this, and also the point that you’ve made about how making a film, a fiction film, allows you to treat the subject reality synthetically rather than just describing it? So, if you could talk about these three things: the three different sections, the perspectives that you represent, and what fiction can allow you to do?

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Of course, the most important is the voice of the refugees, because they’ve been deprived of that voice. They’ve been just totally silenced, or not only silenced, but presented as a terrorist, pedophile, zoophiles and so, by official propaganda by the government, Polish government, then. But somehow, you know, all actors of that crisis are the victims and are facing very difficult and sometimes impossible choices. So, we decided, and ghost screenwriters, to take that epical — epical point of view and exactly to make it as a multivoice story, which seemed logical to me also because it was the first film about that particular crisis, and maybe the last one, I was thinking when we’ve been trying to make it.

And yeah, I talked to the activists. It was easy, because a lot of them are my friends from before. And I was talking to the local people who suddenly became — some of them became activists, even if they didn’t plan it at all. And some became the witnesses, confused witnesses of the situation, which reminded them so much Second World War. And to the refugees, to several refugees in person, to many of them just watching the recording, which was made by the activists, and are anonymous somehow, because not everybody wants to speak about their situation. They are in legal limbo, even if they pass to Europe. And by the end, I was able to talk to some border guards, which was the most difficult, of course, because it’s a military force. And they are — some of them feel guilty, but many of them feel in the right to do what they are doing. So, it is not black-and-white situation, all of that. And, you know, I was also asking myself how big role the racism is playing in that kind of the reception of that crisis by the Polish population.

AMY GOODMAN: And you clearly show it by comparing it to the incredibly humane approach of the Polish government to receiving the millions of Ukrainians after Russia invaded Ukraine, as people were fleeing for their safety. You compare that to what Poland has done on the border with Belarus to the refugees.

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Yeah, that is very instructive, the double standards. But we have to say that we cannot simplify it. It’s not only races which plays the role here. It is also the closeness to the Ukraine, the fact that it happens just behind our border, that in Poland lives big Ukraine diaspora, the workers, the fact that we have common enemy, because Putin is also our Polish enemy and threat.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we’re going to do Part 2 of this interview and post it online. Agnieszka Holland has been our guest. Her new film, Green Border, premieres tonight in New York. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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Agnieszka Holland on New Film “Green Border” About Europe’s Refugees & Her Movies About the Holocaust

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