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Green Border review: refugee drama should be required viewing for all

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Last year’s Venice Film Festival had a plethora of assassins in its competition films, from Woody Allen’s Romanian goons in Coup de Chance to David Fincher’s vengeful hitman in Killer and Richard Linklater’s faux gun for hire in Hit Man.

But the festival has also screened more insidious and far more successful killers via Matteo Garrone’s Io, Capitano, about a young man trying to reach Italy from Senegal. In this case the killers are the traffickers and mafiosi the hero encounters on his arduous journey.

But in the astounding Green Border, Agnieszka Holland reveals the biggest killers of all: not just the Taliban in Afghanistan or Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but the governments and policy makers of Belarus, Poland and the EU, whose heinous treatment of asylum-seekers is depicted so graphically here.

The opening shot is of a verdant, untouched land; the untouched loveliness of the vast Bialowieza Forest covers the Poland-Belarus border. However, that bucolic scene soon turns to black and white as Green Border commences. This use of black and white recalls films such as Schindler’s List or Cold War, both of which recount the horrors committed on Polish soil in previous decades. This time the horror is happening in the here and now and what it depicts is just as pernicious as anything viewed in those two films.

Holland, who also cowrote the screenplay, has divided her film into chapters that follow the trajectories of various characters: the Syrian family and Afghan woman seeking asylum, the Polish border guard who battles with his conscience, the activists who work with refugees in the forest, the psychologist who lives adjacent to Poland’s exclusion zone and who is traumatised and then galvanised into action by events on her doorstep. Each of these characters’ stories are given their own space but also seep into other chapters as the protagonists’ lives become interwoven. The languages shift and overlap as the various characters come together.

The scenes of the battle between Belarusian and Polish border guards are truly disturbing as we see refugees booted between one side of the barbed wire and the other. The guards’ inhumane treatment is like something we are more used to seeing in films about Nazi concentration camps. The barbarity on either side is staggering.

But how did these guards become so brutal? Holland depicts a scene with a pep talk given to the Polish guards, their superior talking about these “human bullets” being fired across the border by Belarus president Lukashenko. The guards are advised that dead bodies need to be chucked back over the fence along with any live refugees they find.

The film ends with an epilogue that shows the Polish border guards working with Ukrainian refugees and she depicts those same murderous guards treating the hordes of arrivals with care and respect, any xenophobia dissipated and non-existent. The contrast is astounding and the message is clear.

What Holland’s film does so eloquently is give refugees a voice, reinstating a sense of their humanity and individuality. Yet she is also sympathetic to those on the other side, caught up in a terrible power game they never wanted to be a part of.

The director manages to contain her righteous indignation, never allowing her anger to overwhelm the film. Like a skilled conductor, she directs this large orchestra of players to produce an incredible ensemble work that will remain in the memory long after viewing. It would make a worthy winner in Venice and should be required viewing for politicians and the public alike.