GREEN BORDER Review: Uncomfortable Yet Vital Refugee Drama

Directed by Agnieszka Holland, the film stars Jalal Altawil, Maja Ostaszewska, and Behi Djanati Atai.

Contributor; Slovakia (@martykudlac)
GREEN BORDER Review: Uncomfortable Yet Vital Refugee Drama

Polish veteran filmmaker Agnieszka Holland's recent refugee drama, Green Border, stands out as this year's most politically charged film. Despite stiff competition from Iran, where governmental barriers hinder independent filmmakers' international festival participation and have led to imprisonments, Holland's work has notably influenced the political landscape.

Green Border emerged as a pivotal topic in the general election, positioning Holland as a prominent adversary of the ruling Law and Justice party. Escalating animosity from the right-wing government towards the filmmaker culminated in Holland seeking residence abroad and necessitating ongoing security measures.

Shot covertly, Agnieszka Holland's directorial collaboration with Kamila Tarabura and Katarzyna Warzecha takes place in Polish forests, focusing on the lesser-known but critical geopolitical crisis at the Belarus-Poland border. Although this situation has not garnered extensive media attention, it has escalated into a humanitarian crisis, severely impacting numerous refugees.


Green Border, released 30 years following Agnieszka Holland's Oscar-nominated Europa Europa, emphasizes the immediate and continuing humanitarian challenges confronting migrants. Holland's filmography typically centers on historical events and crises. However, with her latest project, the seasoned director addresses a current issue likely to be recorded in future history books.

Penned by Agnieszka Holland, Maciej Pisuk, and Gabriela Ɓazarkiewicz-Sieczko, the scriptwriting team conducted extensive research for Green Border by meeting with refugees and activists. They verified information by consulting at least two independent sources to accurately depict events at the border. Their investigation aimed to detail the harrowing experiences faced by refugees, many of whom, seeking sanctuary, tragically encountered death in the cold, swampy forests.

Green Border interweaves the stories of several characters to depict the plight of refugees from the Middle East and Africa as they strive to reach the European Union. Instead, they become entangled in a crisis masterminded by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko.

The film begins with a Syrian family spanning three generations, trapped in the exhausting and dangerous exchanges between Polish and Belarusian forces. This occurs along a barbed-wire border area, a no-man's-land where they are relentlessly pushed back and forth.


As the refugees' distress and frustration escalate, they find themselves without basic necessities like food, water, and even shoes. Injuries inflicted by border guards further deteriorate their health, pushing them to the brink of incapacitation.

In this dire situation, their survival increasingly relies on the support of volunteers. These individuals provide essential aid by supplying food and water, treating injuries, and offering legal assistance to navigate the necessary paperwork.

The plot of Green Border not only focuses on the Syrian family but also expands to include two additional key characters. Julia, a psychologist, is deeply moved by the desperation and tragedy she witnesses, prompting her decision to join the relatively small group of activists.

Additionally, the story follows Jan, a border guard. Influenced by his superiors, Jan adopts a dehumanizing attitude towards the refugees, regardless of their age, gender, or condition. Simultaneously, he grapples with personal challenges, striving to provide for his family as his wife's due date for childbirth approaches.

The Syrian family's story in Green Border serves as a lens into the stark violation of human rights at the border. In contrast, the character of the border guard, Jan, provides insight into the Polish government's strategies in shaping perceptions and attitudes towards refugees.

At one moment, Jan attends a briefing where his superior presents refugees as pawns in Belarusian hybrid warfare. The superior makes outlandish claims, such as children being trained to evoke sympathy for entry into the EU, and baselessly labels adults as pedophiles and zoophiles. This absurd rhetoric reflects the propaganda disseminated by the right-wing party to its citizens.


Green Border is an uncomfortable viewing, particularly in the first third where the Syrian family's ordeal is depicted. Although some have criticized the film for excessive graphic depiction, it is worth noting that The Painted Bird remains more extreme in its portrayal of child abuse. Agnieszka Holland recognizes the political nature of her film, but emphasizes that its core message is humanistic rather than ideological.

Holland, alongside her co-directors and co-writers, adopts an almost documentary-like style in illustrating the refugees' plight, employing black and white cinematography for effect. Green Border exposes the inhumane and exploitative treatment of migrants by border forces on both sides. Despite this, the film seeks to uncover elements of humanity within these ranks. The character of border guard Jan is portrayed as a functional part of this oppressive system, yet he retains a glimmer of conscience.

The filmmakers primarily champion empathy for migrants, countering the dehumanizing narratives often found in governmental rhetoric. Holland and her team do not claim to offer a solution to the migration crisis; instead, they confront the racist and xenophobic stereotypes propagated by authorities.

The film draws parallels with Holocaust movies in its portrayal of a small group aiding those persecuted, capturing a significant historical moment. A key difference is that Green Border reflects on the crisis that transcend Polish-Belarusian border contemporaneously, encapsulating a history-defining moment, but with the crucial distinction that reflection of the crisis comes earlier than those of the Holocaust, with a hope of mitigating casualties. Additionally, the film's coda provides an additional layer of bittersweet humanistic reflection.

Review originally published in December 2023, when Green Border received three European Film Awards nominations. The film will be released Friday, June 21, in New York (Film Forum), Friday, June 28, in Los Angeles (Laemmle Royal), and will then roll out across the U.S., via Kino Lorber. Visit the official site for more information, including locations and playdates.

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Agnieszka HollandBehi Djanati AtaiJalal AltawilKino LorberMaja Ostaszewska

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