New film by director Agnieszka Holland Border comes to us with the attractive label of the prestigious Venice Film Festival Jury Prize. But also vilified for fascism, for supporting Putin, for slandering Poland and the Poles, and who knows what else. All this from the (still ruling) politicians of Poland and the local media. Border however, it is also decorated with massive attendance in the author’s native country – over 75,000 viewers so far! Which is several times higher than the normal average.
The black-and-white film takes place mostly in the gloom or the threatening darkness of the Białowieża Forest on the border of Poland and Belarus. In the inhospitable region, the stories of dozens of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the group of volunteers who help them, and the border guards preventing them from getting to safety intersect. Among the refugees are old people, women and small children. They all need to get out of the forest, where the Belarusian gunmen brought them. That it will only be a short walk, they will soon get to where they are going and what they paid for. However, defenseless people were deceived. The Polish border guards mercilessly drive them back to the aimed Belarusian weapons, they are condemned to wander through the impenetrable forest, into swamps threatening to drown. They need water, food, warmth, and most of all they want to find a way to Western Europe. Fortunately, there is a group of volunteers at the border, ready to effectively help them.
From the confusion and despair of the refugees, from the brutal deployment of the border guard and from the rationally organized activities of the volunteers, prominent personalities and their stories gradually emerge. A Syrian family with children is in an unsolvable situation, the border guards chase them from Belarus to Poland and back again; an Afghan teacher tries in vain to use her language skills to negotiate; the young border guard follows orders with discipline, even as he gradually doubts them, while expecting the birth of a child every day; Psychologist Julie joins the volunteers because living at the border cannot leave her indifferent to the suffering of refugees…
The director does not spare the viewer, the portrayal of borderline dramas is harsh, sometimes heartbreaking. (At the same time, in personal statements, Agnieszka Holland emphasized that all large and even the smallest events depicting the cruel treatment of refugees, including the indiscriminate dialogues of border guards, have a concrete real basis. Each episode transformed into a film is inspired by reality and verified from several sources. Everything can be substantiated photographs, videos, statements of eyewitnesses.)
The drama on the Polish-Belarusian border is divided into chapters according to the stories of the protagonists, which we follow in parallel. Through their gaze, through their fear, pain and determination, we perceive the environment, the atmosphere and the hopelessness of the situation. However, despite the relatively separate episodes, the director manages to maintain the flow of the story and the dramatic structure. Creative camerawork, black-and-white material and the convincingly bleak chiaroscuro of the forest, where danger lurks behind every tree, contribute significantly to the power and impact of the make-up. Credibility is also underlined by the choice of the main actors, starting with the well-known Polish actress Maja Ostaszewska, through distinctive, authentically portrayed characters of refugees (Jalal Altawil, Behi Djanati Atai, Mohamad Al Rashi, Po Dalia Joqascape and others) to the young talented Tomasz Włosok, a rising star of Polish cinema .
Nevertheless, the author could have been less expressive and appealing, spared more emotions, and perhaps also shortened the picture by a few tens of meters. In several places where he presses too hard on the saw, he almost wants to exclaim “enough!”.
Despite partial reservations, however Border a powerful, masterfully shot film with an urgent message. He rightly denounces the ruthlessness and brutality not only of the Belarusian and Polish border guards, but also of the entire rich West. It attacks our “European” conscience, the indifference and comfort of the establishment, but also of people at warm home fireplaces. After all, only in certain moments, when it is not possible otherwise, is society (at least for a while) able to unite in solidarity with the suffering. The director recalls such a moment at the end: the film ends with last year’s authentic footage of Ukrainian refugees, who are spontaneously welcomed by the Poles and bring them help.
However, Agnieszka Holland’s picture also reminds – and it is not entirely certain whether this is the intention – that the refugee problem does not yet have a good solution. Nor is there any realizable one in sight. We agree, of course, that it is reprehensible when they are treated inhumanely and ruthlessly, when their human rights are violated. That’s what it’s about Border. But at the same time, barbed fences, high walls and other barriers and armed patrols are still being built at various borders to prevent migrants from entering Europe. Our continent is apparently too small to solve all the misery of the world, specifically Asia and Africa. It is barely enough to breathe out the war that has been plaguing the treacherously attacked state on its territory for the second year and at the same time be alert to the threat of the aggressor who unleashed it. At the same time, they must not only perceive the threat of world terrorism, whose powerful blow has insidiously attacked Israel, but also prevent further attacks by terrorist guerrillas.
What future awaits thousands of refugees from other continents in this turbulent world?
Footage from Agnieszka Holland’s film Border. Photo: Agáta Kubis, BIOSCOP