'I had to hire bodyguards'

Director Agnieszka Holland on the backlash to Green Border and why film can be a powerful weapon

by Amber Wilkinson

Agnieszka Holland on her cast: 'They’re not only very talented actors with the right linguistic background, but also people who understood very well what the film speaks about and could infuse it with their own experience'
Agnieszka Holland on her cast: 'They’re not only very talented actors with the right linguistic background, but also people who understood very well what the film speaks about and could infuse it with their own experience' Photo: Agata Kubis/Kino Lorber
Today, June 20 marks the United Nations World Refugee Day, which is dedicated to those forced to flee around the globe. The UNHCR estimates that at the end of 2023 there were 117.3 million displaced people worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order, with 47 million of those, children.

It’s a fitting week, then, for the release of Agnieszka Holland’s raw and urgent drama Green Border - coming to UK cinemas tomorrow - which charts the horrendous situation experienced by refugees on her homeland Poland’s border with Belarus. Enticed by promises of a safe and easy way into the European Union by Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, little did the refugees realise they were just pawns in a deadly political game, becoming stuck in the no man’s land forests between the two countries, pushed back and forth with no mercy.

Holland’s film follows the attempted crossing by a Syrian mother and father (Dalia Naous and Jalal Altawil) with their young family and his father (Mohamad Al Rashi) who join forces with Afghanistan refugee Leila (Behi Djanati Atai) in a bid to make it to their new life. As they find their situation worsening, we are also offered the perspective of Jan (Tomasz Włosok), a border guard trained to view the refugees as weaponised but who begins to find his conscience prickling and psychiatrist Julia (Maja Ostaszewska), who turns to activism after being confronted with the refugees’ plight. Holland pulls no punches with her film, which took home the Special Jury Prize at Venice Film Festival. We caught up with the director ahead of the release to talk about the film.

She explains: “The crisis became visible to people in the summer of 2001. And the Polish government immediately reacted in a violent way, and established the closed zone, a kind of state of emergency, around the border, that was pretty vast. Refusing access to the zone, to the activists, to the NGOs, medical organisations and our media. So it became very clear that they didn’t want to have witnesses to the action they took. But we had a lot of witnesses and people who've seen the things and even recorded something, as well as the refugees who passed through that zone, the activists and the local people in the first place. And some journalists didn't obey - but very few, I have to say, they’ve been pretty conformist.”

Speaking about her own motivations to make Green Border, Holland adds: “I understood it was the beginning of something very dangerous, which, unfortunately, is not only in Poland, but the entirety of Europe because the situation of the issue of migration became, over the last 10 years, probably one of the most important issues that will shape the future of the rich world, and of the world altogether.

Agnieszka Holland: 'The reactions to the film after the screenings.. have been incredibly emotional and very deep'
Agnieszka Holland: 'The reactions to the film after the screenings.. have been incredibly emotional and very deep' Photo: Agata Kubis/Kino Lorber
“It started to be visible in the Syrian War, and in 2015, the first big wave of refugees from Syria, and it became visible also that it is a weak spot of Europe that it's very easy to spread the fear and hate based on that visceral reaction to the, to the, to the flow of others, and the real social problems and political problems, and the problems of security and the lack of will to make deeper, global migration policy. The politicians immediately started to use that issue or to spread those fears, or to pretend that they have the solution by evacuating the problem.”

Holland’s film - shot in stark black and white - is wide-ranging and offers a wide variety of viewpoints, also showing that the refugees all have their own different motivations and reasons for making the journey.

The director adds: “The migrants aren’t a united kind of group you can define. The only thing you can define is that they all believe that they may achieve paradise somehow and they are ready to pay the price. But especially in the beginning, when my film is showing the situation, most of them have been really tricked by Lukashenka, who promised a very civilised way to come to the European Union. And a lot of people didn't know what awaited them.”

When it came to casting, Holland was determined to make sure everything had the ring of truth.

Agnieszka Holland: 'I feel that now we see in European elections that the rise of the extreme right is pretty visible'
Agnieszka Holland: 'I feel that now we see in European elections that the rise of the extreme right is pretty visible'
She says: “For the family, it was important to me that they were Syrian actors, because I wanted the Syrian family to be as credible as possible. And to have the accent which makes them a family - Syrian people will not believe it if the parents have an accent from the capital and the children have one from Aleppo. We found them pretty quickly. I’m really grateful for our very talented refugee actors. In the case of the father and grandfather, they have a great and long career of theatrical experience, and they've been the stars in their country before they fled the regime.

“They spent some time in a camp for displaced people and refugees.Jalal was arrested, spent some time in prison and he escaped, miraculously, and he cannot go back to his country, even for the funeral of his mother, because he's threatened with a death sentence. So they’re not only very talented actors with the right linguistic background, but also people who understood very well what the film speaks about and could infuse it with their own experience.

“The Syrian children we found in Turkey, and they also went through several pushbacks between Syrian and Turkey before they were accepted.postbacks, between Syria and Turkey before they actually had been accepted and they are living peacefully in Istanbul now.

“In Poland, it was easier for me, of course, because I know the actors pretty well. But, I asked Maja Ostaszewska, who is a very well known actress in Poland, but who happens also to be a defender of human rights and animal rights. She was very active on the border issue, and went there to help the activists several times and became some kind of spokeswoman for them. The film was made partly underground because we didn't want the authorities to interfere with our work. [So it was good] to have the people who had real motivation to tell that story.

When the film premiered in Venice, there was a huge backlash from the then-government in Poland. The Law and Justice (PiS) party responded with a hate campaign attacking the director. President Andrzej Duda compared it to Nazi propaganda and described it as “anti-Polish” and there was an attempt to force cinemas to show a 30-second propaganda film entitled Safe Poland before Holland’s film, though many refused.

There’s no doubt it had a personal impact on the director, who says: “The press had been so bad that I had to take protection and hire bodyguards.”

But, she adds that the positive knock-on effect was that it helped her message to reach a wider audience. She explains: “It was so overdone by the authorities that it of course attracted the audience to come and see with their own eyes. And some people came, you know, to show their solidarity and most of the people came because they were curious. So we had a great box office and the film became very popular and the reactions to the film after the screenings, anytime when I was present in the audience, have been incredibly emotional and very deep. The people really wanted to talk about it and to discuss the issue and the Q&As changed to some kind of collective psychotherapy.”

Maja Ostaszewska in Green Border. Agnieszka Holland on her star: 'She was very active on the border issue, and went there to help the activists several times and became some kind of spokeswoman for them'
Maja Ostaszewska in Green Border. Agnieszka Holland on her star: 'She was very active on the border issue, and went there to help the activists several times and became some kind of spokeswoman for them' Photo: Agata Kubis/Kino Lorber
The government of Poland has since changed, with Donald Tusk’s Civil Coalition taking office. Holland says: “My film played some role in that situation, because it was released three weeks before the elections and it was attacked with incredible violence and top politicians from the government then.”

Although she says she was hopeful in the wake of the elections that the incoming party would “rationalise and humanise” the problem even if it couldn’t be fully resolved, but now she says the situation has deteriorated again. A soldier was stabbed and killed in a clash near the border just before the European elections and Holland says: “An incredible hysteria started.”

She adds: “Suddenly [there was] that feeling that we are attacked by terrible enemies spread over the population, not only among the extreme right parties, but also among the supporters of the democratic party. The prime minister, who was giving very human humanitarian speeches before the elections in October, now changed his language and he is even more determined to break the situation than the previous nationalistic government. And they just two days ago gave permission to the soldiers to shoot the migrants and fire at any moment when they feel that they have to. And they have the reassurance that they will not be punished for that.

"So that was what I was afraid of when I was thinking in 2015, 16 and 17, and watching where we are going, how we are lazy and afraid to face the problem but we are [instead] trying to use that for the political goals of several parties in many countries.

“I feel that now we see in European elections that the rise of the extreme right is pretty visible. But what is the most dangerous to me is not that the extreme right has that agenda but that the democratic parties are taking over that agenda and they are trying to be even more populist than the populist and they cannot win in that, in that competition.”

At 75, Holland seems as driven as ever to make films and, though she says she feels quite despairing at the state of the world, she still thinks movies can make a difference.

She concludes: “I’m quite hopeless because I think we are really leaning in a very bad direction and if it will not stop, and it doesn’t look like anyone wants to stop it, we are leaning towards crimes against humanity. When already in Poland, 85% accept the fact and want the soldiers to shoot the migrants, it shows that mentally, we already agreed to murder. I know that my film or any film will not change the fear and cowardice of the politicians. But at least somebody has to play that role. And the film could be quite a powerful weapon thought to touch people's hearts and consciences.”

Modern Films will release Green Border in UK and Irish cinemas tomorrow, June 21. For more information on World Refugee Day, visit the UNHCR. There are film events taking place in Scotland as part of the Refugee Festival. Kino Lorber is releasing the film in the US, from June 21 in New York, then in LA from June 28

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