Review: Green Border Is an Astonishingly Courageous Movie

A still from Agnieszka Holland's <i>Green Border</i> Credit - Courtesy of Kino Lorber

Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland’s extraordinary war drama Green Border isn’t specifically about any of the wars, particularly those in Ukraine and the Middle East, currently at the forefront of our consciousness. Even so, the horrors it depicts—as well as the salve it gives us, in the form of resistance workers fighting for basic human rights—take place on a battleground both ideological and visceral. It may seem like a fool’s errand to try to persuade even hardcore moviegoers to see a serious-minded film about the plight of refugees trying to cross into Europe from the Middle East and Africa. But Holland’s film, though at times tough to watch, is so beautifully made, and so attuned to all the things we respond to as humans who care about art’s entwinement with real life, that it’s ultimately more joyful than dispiriting. Sometimes movies about tough subjects end up being such brutal experiences you almost wish you hadn’t seen them. Green Border is the opposite: it’s likely to leave you feeling emboldened and galvanized, if also a little sadder and wiser. It’s a quiet masterstroke, a film that won the special jury prize in Venice last year; now, upon its release in North America, it's poised to be one of the best films of this year.

Shot in elegant, forthright black-and-white, Green Border at first focuses on one family as they leave their home in Syria in the autumn of 2021: Bashir (Jalal Altawil) and Amina (Dalia Naous) and their three young children, the smallest not yet a toddler, have lost everything at home. They, along with Bashir’s elderly father (Al Rashi Mohamad), are headed to a new life in Sweden, with Bashir’s brother. The plan for getting there seems straightforward: they’ve boarded a flight for Belarus; once they land, a car arranged and paid for by Bashir’s brother will escort them to the Polish border, and from there, the hop to Sweden will be easy. Leila (Behi Djanati Atai), a middle-aged teacher from Afghanistan whom they’ve befriended on the plane, joins them—at first, she seems like a nuisance, but her fortitude, in addition to the euros she’s got stashed in her purse, will prove invaluable.

Holland's film blends compassion with artistry so purely that there’s no way to separate them.<span class="copyright">Courtesy of Kino Lorber</span>
Holland's film blends compassion with artistry so purely that there’s no way to separate them.Courtesy of Kino Lorber

Though the group deplanes and finds their driver without incident, they immediately sense something’s wrong when they reach a checkpoint, and their driver, though he's already been paid, angrily demands cash with which to bribe the guards. The family is then forced through a razor-wire fence—they’re now over the border, in Poland, but their relief is short-lived. When Leila approaches a farmer to ask for food and water—the family has gone for days without either—he obliges. Then he places a phone call, and it’s only a matter of time before the group has been picked up by Polish police, later to be turned over to border guards. Bashir and his family, along with Leila, are packed into a truck, bundled with others also seeking asylum, and returned to the Belarus border, where they’re forced to cross back. The Belarussians don’t want them, and the Poles, don’t either; Bashir’s family and the others in that truck—including a heavily pregnant woman from Africa—are pawns of the two countries, one a member of the European Union, the other a Russian ally, locked in a battle of will and spitefulness.

Read more: The 100 Best Movies of the Past 10 Decades

The border police on both sides are cruel and sadistic. The natural world is no friend, either: in one of the film’s most wrenching scenes, a swamp in a Polish forest becomes a death trap. It’s a horrible moment, yet Holland guides us through it with something that feels like kindness: we feel its weight, but like the characters she has drawn so deftly, we know there’s nowhere to go but forward. Holland, who cowrote the script with Maciej Pisuk and Gabriela Lazarkiewicz, expands the story to draw in the experiences of a Polish border guard, Jan (Tomasz Wlosok), whose training has amounted to a kind of dehumanization that he may or may not be able to surmount. And a group of underground Polish rescue workers do all they can to help the refugees, including providing basic medical care, though their powers are limited. Still, when they show up in the forest where the refugees, terrified and hungry, are hiding, it's like a cavalry of kindness: they come with their supplies of soup and water, as well as simple things like bandages and toys to amuse the kids. They massage and bandage torn-up, bloodied feet; the pregnant woman gets an ultrasound, thanks to the workers' portable equipment. Holland makes you feel the weight, and the inestimable value, of the grace they’re bringing to a horrible situation. It’s a reminder that for all the people who seek only to do harm in the world, there are still those who will risk their own lives to help.

<i>Green Border</i> won the special jury prize in Venice last year<span class="copyright">Courtesy of Kino Lorber</span>
Green Border won the special jury prize in Venice last yearCourtesy of Kino Lorber

That’s a lot for a movie to carry, but Green Border does so gracefully. There’s never anything sanctimonious or preachy about it. This is Holland’s gift, as she has proved through decades of filmmaking, from the 1990 Holocaust drama Europa Europa—the film that brought her a worldwide audience—to more recent pictures like the 2017 environmental parable Spoor. (I marvel when I recall that she also gave us the 1993 adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, one of the most beautiful children’s movies ever made.)

Green Border, unsurprisingly, has been condemned by the right in Holland's home country. When it won the jury prize in Venice, Poland’s then justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, likened it to Nazi propaganda. But Green Border also became a box-office hit in Poland, and not long after its release last fall, a state election ousted Ziobro and other right-wing politicians who had decried the movie. The point isn’t necessarily that movies can move the needle, though perhaps sometimes they can. It’s that filmmakers who care can inspire audiences to care, too. Holland was moved to make Green Border in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis, when more than a million people, many from Syria, poured into Europe seeking asylum. It’s a work that blends compassion with artistry so purely that there’s no way to separate them. This is bold filmmaking that makes us feel more courageous too. And there’s not a citizen of the world who couldn’t use some of that right now.

Contact us at