‘Green Border’ NYFF Review: A Heartbreaking Look at Poland’s Migrant Crisis

Stirring, troubling and at times difficult to watch, 'Green Border' is a powerful film.

Jalal Altawil in Green Border. Agata Kubis

Seventy-four-year-old director Agnieszka Holland has faced some of the toughest criticism of her career for Green Border—but not from movie critics and industry leaders. Rather, the veteran filmmaker has instead roused the right-leaning Polish government, with officials likening her film about the modern migrant crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border to Nazi propaganda. It’s against this backdrop of backlash that Green Border and its powerful outcry for humanity must be contextualized.

GREEN BORDER ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Directed by: Agnieszka Holland
Written by: Maciej Pisuk, Gabriela Łazarkiewicz-Sieczko, Agnieszka Holland
Starring: Jalal Altawil, Mohammad Al Rashi, Dalia Naous,  Maja Ostaszewska
Running time: 147 mins.

The film weaves together several narratives, all converging on the treacherous “green border” between the two European countries. First and foremost is the story of a tight-knit Syrian family, fleeing the lives they’ve come to know in refugee camps. There’s gruff Bashir (Jalal Altawil), his wife Amina (Dalia Naous), his father (Mohammad Al Rashi), and his three small children. On the plane from Turkey to Belarus, they meet Leila (Behi Djanati Atai), a woman making her own escape from Afghanistan. Together, they board what they think is a van that’ll take them straight to Poland and immediate protection in the EU, but what they find is a fraught and inhumane situation on the border. 

Essentially, Belarus and Poland have been shepherding migrants back and forth over the border as political pawns; the former has spun out propaganda about Middle Eastern and African migrants’ ease of access and safety, all but inviting them to make the trek, while the latter expels them as dangerous cargo sent by their sworn enemy. One Polish border leader says explicitly that these migrants, despite their heart wrenching stories of violence, sickness and famine, “aren’t people; they’re weapons from Lukashenko and Putin.” 

That derision is felt directly by the migrants, who are shouted at, threatened and assaulted by border guards on both sides, traveling back and forth in a constant, horrific cycle. It’s a brutal, difficult watch at times, casting a harsh light on the realities that thousands of migrants have faced and continue to face today. There are many shocking moments that demonstrate some of humanity’s lowest lows, but Holland’s film is not bereft of hope.

A still from Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border. Agata Kubis

Green Border sets up a stark contrast between Polish perspectives on the issue. On one end is Jan (Tomasz Włosok), a border guard looking to provide for his very pregnant wife and their new family; he seems removed from the grim reality of his job, following orders without stopping to think about what he’s actually doing. On the other end is Julia (Maja Ostaszewska), a psychologist whose bleeding heart gets her involved in a small band of humanitarian workers who seek to offer migrants aid and legal help. There’s not much they can do legally, a frustrating bureaucratic roadblock for people who desperately want to help.

Holland takes this flawed legal system and makes the plea for basic humanity, for offering help in any way possible—whether that be lending clothing, a car, or part of your home to the cause. Her film argues that human connection is always possible and that it’s one of the greatest kindnesses we can offer, with one scene shared by a small group of Polish and African teens making the point sweetly and beautifully.

It’s unfortunate, though, that the parts of the film concerning Julia and her humanitarian efforts are some of the weakest. She finds her truest ally in one of the more radical activists of the humanitarian group, who often comes off as a parody of progressivism. Attempts at infusing the narrative with humor and fun character moments so late in the game makes for  confusion, as Holland’s striking call to action gets dulled.

Aside from the odd character work in the latter portion of the movie, Green Border remains a righteous, infuriating and woefully compelling watch. It’s politically prescient, yes, but more importantly, it gets to the human heart of Poland’s migrant crisis. It’s certainly sparked anger, and hopefully it’s the kind of film that can spark change.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Green Border’ NYFF Review: A Heartbreaking Look at Poland’s Migrant Crisis