Venice 2023: Green Border review


From sub-Saharan Africa to Afghanistan, Syria to Iraq and Iran, the climate crisis, drought, war, and oppression has created a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. It is treated as an ethical conundrum, but it isn’t. Either we wish to save those who are in danger of dying, or all our talk of human rights is just so much hot air. This is the core concern of Green Border.

The measures taken by western governments such as the UK and the EU have been insufficient when they haven’t actively made matters worse. A particularly inhumane worsening of the crisis occurred when Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko made it known that refugees would enter the EU via his country so that he could use them against Poland. Poland implemented a policy of “push back” in which it forcefully deported people back into Belarus. Agnieszka Holland’s new film Green Border is about putting faces and names to the numbers, and human beings into this horrific picture.

The film begins with a family on a flight. On a flight everyone is a passenger, and a passenger is a normal human being. The family are not only treated with dignity, but also courtesy, given roses as they land. They are fleeing the Syrian town of Harasta and ISIS. Mother Amina (Dalia Naous) nurses her infant with two other young children, her husband Bashir (Jalal Altawil) and her father-in-law (Mohamad Al Rashi). They are heading to a family member who lives in Sweden. An Afghan refugee Leila (Behi Djanati Atai) hopes to find refuge in Poland, having worked with the Polish Army during the American occupation. But when they get to the border they are shoved into Poland without any help and miles from anywhere. The Polish police soon round them up, calling them “tourists”, and shove them back under the barbed wire. The Belarusian security force now beat and rob them viciously. It’s as if the Polish and Belarusians are competing to create the most hostile environment.

One of the border guards Jan (Tomasz Włosok) gets his own chapter (Green Border is divided into chapters). He is building a new house, anticipating the birth of his daughter. His wife Kasia (Malwina Buss) prefers to not believe he is involved in what the police are said to be doing, helped by the radio and television which mostly repeats the government line, as does Jan’s superior officer. Jan’s is the weakest part of the film, as if Holland can’t quite find it in herself to find any sympathy for Jan’s nascent qualms. But not all Poles are happy with their government’s policy and a group of activists led by two sisters Marta (Monika Frajczyk) and Zuku (Jasmina Polak) take aid to refugees caught in the exclusion zone – water, medical supplies, soup, power banks, legal advice and sleeping bags. Living in a nearby house, a local psychiatrist Julia (Maja Ostaszewska) has a chance encounter with the refugees which leads her to join the activists and encourage them to become more daring in their activism.

Green Border is a gruelling watch for much of its 147-minute runtime, and yet strangely it emerges not without hope. The possibility of a humane engagement is there in the acts of individuals who risk their own safety, freedom, and livelihoods to help others and the people themselves who are real people first and foremost and systemically made victims only afterwards by the premeditated actions of governments and the functionaries of those who are only following orders. Green Border is a powerful and necessary film, and whether it wins a prize or not here in Venice has already achieved a high honour of sorts: a condemnation by the Polish government. Holland is pissing the right people off. Let’s hope she inspires the rest of us.

The 80th Venice Film Festival takes place from 30 August-9 September.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty