Green Border review – gripping story of refugees’ fight for survival in the forest

Green Border review – gripping story of refugees’ fight for survival in the forest

At 74, Polish film-maker Agnieszka Holland has lost none of her passion – or compassion – and this brutal, angry, gruelling drama, in sombre black and white, is recognisably the work of that director who made Europa Europa in 1990. It is about the “green border” exclusion zone between Poland and Belarus, now the location for an apparently unending ordeal for refugees.

With sly malice, Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko has in recent years permitted the admission of refugees, cynically encouraging their hope of getting easily from there on foot across the border into Poland and the EU via the Białowieża Forest – but only as a way of punishing and undermining the European Union for its anti-Belarus sanctions. He has effectively weaponised these desperate souls and the increasingly resentful and aggressive Polish border force avoid the bureaucratic necessity of feeding and housing these incomers in camps and just throw them back over the barbed wire fence, where they live and die in the forest wasteland. Belarus’s “green border” destabilisation strategy helps push Poland into paranoid xenophobia, precisely the geopolitical mood which Lukashenko (and Putin) find congenial.

Holland’s drama covers a mosaic of people caught up in this nexus of desperation, hunger, fear and political bad faith: there are refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Africa, a Polish border guard with a pregnant wife who is having qualms about the brutality he is expected (illegally) to dish out and a Polish psychotherapist horrified and radicalised by witnessing the death of a refugee child, who then joins what amounts to a guerrilla band of young Polish activists who make sorties into the forest to give what medical help and legal assistance they can.

The result is a sombre, yet gripping movie in what feels like two separate genres: a movie about the eastern front in the second world war, or the first world war, or perhaps an entirely different, futurist film: a post-apocalyptic drama in which the forest is the site of some frantic survival-struggle experienced by people whose humanity has been almost entirely stripped from them, as if by some nuclear blast or germ warfare strike.

When the refugees first stumble euphorically into Poland, believing that their worries are now over, they still feel like human beings. But this is eroded by the pure absurdist horror of being brutally evicted back to Belarus and then thrown back into Poland by two sets of soldiers, neither of whom want the responsibility of dealing with them, back and forth – and all under cover of that forest, whose darkness makes it that bit easier to get away with uniformed brutality.

When Afghan English teacher Leila (Behi Djanati Atai) stumbles across a ploughed field and pitifully asks a Polish farmer for water, he obliges and even gives her some apples and points towards a farmhouse where more help is to be had. But when she turns and sees him call someone on his mobile, she panics and runs back to the cover of woodland while he calls after her: “Wait!” Was he really trying to help? Or going to denounce her to the authorities? Farmers in occupied Poland or occupied France must have looked similarly ambiguous.

Later, a hatchet-faced Belarusian border guard demands €50 from Leila for a bottle of water; first refusing to give her change for a larger bill and then petulantly grabbing the water back and contemptuously returning her money with a slap. Holland shows that these degrading petty assaults, along with the very real physical violence, chip away at their sense of themselves as human beings. And the Belarusian and Polish guards are themselves scared of each other. And then there is the war in Ukraine, and Holland’s film shows that this very same border force is mobilised to welcome thousands of Ukrainian refugees: somehow all the realistic arguments against refugees appear to have melted away.

Green Border is a tough watch: a punch to the solar plexus. But a vital bearing of cinematic witness to what is happening in Europe right now.