GREEN BORDER: Agnieszka Holland Talks Controversy, Oscar Submission Snub, Guerrilla Filming

Contributor; Slovakia (@martykudlac)
GREEN BORDER: Agnieszka Holland Talks Controversy, Oscar Submission Snub, Guerrilla Filming

The esteemed Polish director and current president of the European Film Academy, Agnieszka Holland, has received significant recognition for her latest film, Green Border.

The refugee drama has earned nominations in three categories at the European Film Awards 2023. Additionally, Green Border has been at the heart of a contentious hate campaign in Poland, particularly during the general election period, with Holland herself becoming a central figure in the controversy.

Holland revealed that due to the timing of the premiere before the election, she had anticipated a strong reaction from the government, but it was the scale of the response that has surprised her. The film not only attracted the attention of the governmental press and media but also engaged the highest authorities of the country, including the president and the prime minister. This level of engagement was unprecedented and, according to Holland, an overreaction.

Interestingly, this intense government scrutiny inadvertently boosted the film's popularity and box office success in Poland. The film attracted close to 800,000 viewers, a significant number for the Polish box office, and particularly notable for its genre.

While there's no concrete data to measure this impact, Holland believes the film sparked a significant moral movement. Green Border encouraged public discourse on topics that were either neglected or manipulated by propaganda. Holland revealed that the film's release was strategically timed after the Venice Film Festival, aligning with the ruling party's plans to use migration as a key issue in the upcoming election.

She observes that the opposition's response to the government's narrative on migration was tepid at best. Holland sensed a moral vacuum and discomfort among the people, especially in the context of the Ukrainian war and the ensuing popular support movement. The film, through its humanistic perspective, filled this void, offering a different viewpoint and resonating with the public's growing awareness of disparities in governmental policies and human rights issues.

The intersection of cinema and politics is hard to overlook in the case of Green Border, but Holland says that in the current year, there's been a noticeable clash between the cultural realm of cinema and the dominant political narratives. This conflict is especially pronounced against the backdrop of surging right-wing populism and fascism, leading to a collision between moral narratives in cinema and the propagandistic narratives prevalent in politics.

Acknowledging the fear-driven nature of current politics, the director noted how responsive people have become to these fears. She expresses her disagreement with certain aspects of the socio-political climate but also admits to not having all the solutions. This introspection leads her to question the role of art, cinema, and creative narratives, traditionally critical and reflective.

In this sense, she emphasizes the challenge faced by filmmakers today: to create works that evoke strong, authentic reactions beyond mere political commentary. She highlights a recent incident in France, where a filmmaker's award ceremony speech stirred controversy with the Minister of Culture, illustrating the need for more pronounced and courageous cinematic responses.

As a politically-engaged individual, Holland expresses relief over the victory of the liberal right in her country's election, which replaced an authoritarian regime. However, she maintains a realistic perspective, not expecting significant changes regarding the themes explored in her film.

The director expressed hopes for an end to institutional cruelty and the criminalization of assistance to those in need, anticipating a shift in the atmosphere and reduced suffering for the people. Yet, she is sceptical about any profound changes in the general political landscape, citing the European Union's tendency to avoid confronting challenging situations head-on.

When discussing the premiere of her film in Poland, she reveals a sense of apprehension. The political climate, marked by aggressive rhetoric from politicians and the presence of threatening individuals, had created a tense environment. She and her family received several threats, heightening their concerns about potential violence from fanatics or unstable individuals, especially given recent incidents in Poland.

As a precaution, Holland shortened her stay in Poland around the film's premiere and hired bodyguards. This decision, while necessary for her safety, also provided her with a unique and somewhat surreal experience, she says.

She also detailed the shooting of a film dealing with sensitive subject matter, which necessitated a discreet approach to production. Holland clarifies that while the filming wasn't entirely secret, it was conducted with a level of discretion to avoid drawing undue attention, especially from government or public institutions.

To maintain this low profile, Holland's team refrained from seeking funding from governmental bodies, keeping the specifics of the filming schedule and locations under wraps. They strategically avoided shooting in public state forests, opting for private ones instead. This approach allowed the production to progress largely unnoticed until the final stages, when reactions from governmental and hostile media began to emerge.

The film was shot rapidly, over just 24 days, employing two units working simultaneously. Holland and her co-directors split their efforts, each focusing on different groups of actors to maximize efficiency. This "guerrilla shooting" approach, as she calls it, was necessary given the time constraints and the film's delicate subject matter.

Addressing the challenge of portraying emotional intensity and authenticity, especially given the traumatic themes of the film, Holland highlights the unique composition of her cast. Many of the actors playing refugees were refugees themselves, lending an inherent emotional depth and understanding to their roles. The leading Polish actress in the film, Maja Ostaszewska, an activist familiar with the situations depicted, brought a personal connection and intimate knowledge to her performance.

Preparation was key. Despite the short shooting schedule, Holland ensured a thorough pre-production phase. This allowed the actors, particularly those from Arabic backgrounds, to deeply understand and analyze their dialogues and situations.

Emphasizing authenticity, Holland cast a Syrian family — father, grandfather, and children — to ensure a believable portrayal and familial connection that would resonate with Syrian audiences. This careful and considerate approach underlines Holland's commitment to authenticity and sensitivity in tackling complex, real-world issues through cinema.

Her decision to shoot her film in black and white was influenced by multiple factors. Initially met with skepticism from her cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk, who thought the choice might be too simplistic, Holland had long harbored a desire to use black and white, drawn to its aesthetic and the films she admired most from her early career.

She envisioned a dual stylistic approach for her film. On one hand, shooting in black and white would lend a raw, documentary-like realism to the visuals, capturing the grit and immediacy of the story. On the other, it would add a metaphorical dimension, offering a timeless quality that transcends specific periods or locations.

Additionally, there was a practical aspect to this choice. The film's production was scheduled at the onset of spring, a time when the sudden burst of greenery could have posed a challenge to the film's visual consistency. By opting for black and white, the film crew mitigated this risk, ensuring a uniform visual language throughout the film.

This decision reflects her thoughtful consideration of both the artistic and practical elements of filmmaking, striving to create a work that is not only deeply rooted in reality but also transcends it, capturing a broader, more universal human experience.

Holland also shared her insights on the importance of the European Film Academy, particularly for smaller European countries. She believes that the Academy plays a crucial role, often more significant for smaller countries than for larger ones like France.

The Academy, in Holland's view, is not just about the accolades and awards, which themselves are vital tools for promoting European cinema. Beyond these, it serves as a platform for collaboration, networking, and mutual understanding among filmmakers across Europe.

This aspect is especially crucial for facilitating European co-productions, which Holland sees as essential for creating films that transcend local narratives and appeal to a broader audience.

She emphasized the practical benefits of the Academy, noting that the quality of European co-productions has improved significantly due to the connections and shared tastes fostered by the Academy.

In addition, she also reflected on the decision-making process for selecting the Polish entry, discussing the influence of political factors and the responsibilities of those involved. Holland was under the impression that her film, having achieved acclaim in Venice, was a strong candidate for Poland's Oscar submission.

However, the film Peasants was chosen instead. She suspects this decision was influenced by political considerations, given the contentious environment her film had generated within Poland, particularly among authorities.

Reflecting on her interactions with some committee members, Holland notes that some initially expressed support for her film but later changed their stance during the selection process. She attributes these shifts not to the films' artistic merits but to political or personal reasons.

Holland expands on the broader issue of cultural grant decisions in countries with authoritarian tendencies. She points out that filmmakers often depend on public grant institutions like the Polish Film Institute for funding, which can lead to uncomfortable situations if these bodies are politically influenced.

She stresses the importance of maintaining clear and unbiased processes in these institutions, advocating for measures that prevent political or personal agendas from contaminating decision-making and emphasizing the need for transparency and integrity in the film industry, particularly in situations where politics and art intersect.

She calls for a collective effort to avoid participation in grey-zone scenarios where decisions are made for the wrong reasons, underscoring her commitment to ethical practices in the world of cinema.

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