Download:: 2023 Venice Dispatch: Green Border
Wowsers, of all people I did not expect 74-year-old Polish director Agnieszka Holland to deliver the most harrowing, gut-wrenchingly urgent film of the competition. Green Border isn’t always as subtle as it could be and probably didn’t find the most graceful ending, but I was riveted through its 147-min runtime and can’t imagine anyone with even an iota of empathy not being affected by it. A bona fide contender for the Golden Lion.
Unfolding in chapters, the film first introduces us to a Syrian family that has fled their home country out of dire necessity. We meet them on a flight to Minsk, where they plan to cross the border to Poland then make their way to Sweden. The border-crossing part turns out to be not just illegal but dangerous and unthinkably degrading. Once on the Polish side, they are soon arrested by the border guards patrolling the forests and quite literally kicked back across a wire fence to Belarus. The humiliation doesn’t stop there as the Belarusian authorities would proceed to reciprocate the action. Before long, we have an ever larger group of people who are dumped between two countries like trash, with their supplies running out and hope for salvation extinguishing.
The next chapter takes us out of the woods and follows the life of Polish border guard Jan. We’ve seen Jan in action already, he’s one of the uniformed officers violently, cold-bloodedly carrying out their duty. Here we see him as a fresh-faced young man, an expecting father, a public servant being educated and trained that refugees are weapons deployed by the Belarusian dictator against the EU, that the children they see crossing the border are human bullets. For all his dedication to serving his country, Jan is starting to feel the burden of what one might call a conscience. Further chapters of the film profile Polish activists, young people who go out of their way to help the refugees while seeing their efforts thwarted at every turn by Europe’s supposed rule of law, as well as middle-aged psychiatrist Julia, whose life is changed when her path crosses with that of the Syrian family.
Co-written by Holland, Gabriela Lazarkiewicz-Sieczko and Maciej Pisuk, the screenplay wisely covers not just the experience of the refugees, but also other participants in a vast and vastly complex human crisis. When the film first switches its focus to the guard, in my head the alarm that some cringey bothsidesism is about to drop does go off. But in this case you realize the film does not intend to draw false equivalence between “sides”. It’s about understanding how things came to be so bad in a lucid, comprehensive way that would do the subject matter justice. As such, I find all the portrayals of the presumed evil or morally weak to be honest and absolutely essential. We live in a world with people who believe everything their government tells them, who will support and defend what their loved ones do no matter what, who wouldn’t risk their livelihood to help strangers. Plot details like these add truthfulness to a tragic story that is sadly an ongoing reality.
The redemption arc in the film’s last act feels a little rushed and too hopeful, sure. But overall I think this is a beautifully constructed script that puts clear, human faces to the abstract idea of a refugee crisis. It tells you yes, it is a political matter and yes, it is a legal matter. But at the end of the day, it really is a matter of humanity. Does anything justify throwing children across fences like cannonballs? Or leaving people in desperate medical need to their own devices? The scene where Julia witnesses a death in the forest is so heartbreaking that, as a human being, you understand on a visceral level how this could lead to her subsequent course of action. It has nothing to do with any “crisis”. It’s the sheer humanity of the situation that will leave its lasting mark.
Another worry that one may have regarding films like Green Border is that they turn out drily message-y. Well, that’s certainly not the case here. Holland directs the two-and-a-half-hour drama with muscular assurance and a superb sense of tension. Aided by some great editing work courtesy of Pavel Hrdlička, she juggles the narrative strands expertly, weaving together aspects of a sweeping tragedy and always putting you right in the center of it. The parts involving the refugees’ journeys, especially, are shot with near-documentarian rigor that’ll send pulses racing.
To the cynic in me, the ending of the film is a little too optimistic. Seeing how nationalism and authoritarianism are on the rise all across Europe/the world, I don’t think this makes for a realistic representation of how things could go. Then again, there are selfless souls out there fighting the good fight. And if this movie can even change one person’s mind or inspire them to consider something beyond that they’re used to seeing/hearing, it will have more than done its job.