Venice 2023 review: Green Border (Agnieszka Holland)

Green Border no doubt has its naïve heart in the right place, but is too much of a play on white guilt and too little of a play on artistic value.”

There is a certain irony in telling a story without any moral greys in black and white. Over-simplifying a complex political and humanitarian issue, Agnieszka Holland’s migrant crisis drama Green Border no doubt has its naïve heart in the right place, but is too much of a play on white guilt and too little of a play on artistic value. Overly long and overly pedantic, what is meant as a cry for attention for a true humanitarian crisis happening on the edges of Europe becomes a bludgeoning hammer that wears an audience out with the constant stream of misery the film pours over it. Green Border will likely fare well come Saturday when the festival hands out its awards, but when you look through the pathos and see the lack of coherence and a true artistic vision its apparent appeal will leave you flabbergasted.

The titular green border is that between Belarus and Poland, specifically Białowieża Forest, one of continental Europe’s last primeval forests. It is a gorgeous setting for something very ugly. Those migrants who eschew the supposedly more dangerous Mediterranean route try this overland entry into the European Union in hopes of reaching safer pastures. But there is no less danger in this green zone where people at the end of their wits become play toys for cruel border patrols on both sides, tossing human life back and forth without a shred of humanity. Looking at the issue from three perspectives, Green Border lacks the nuance to prevent predictability. Initially it follows a Syrian family of five and an Afghan woman tagging along; they meet on a comfortable flight from Turkey and are stuffed into a pre-arranged airport transfer to the border. When they run into a Belarusian patrol all hell breaks loose. They are unceremoniously pushed under the barbwire fence that forms the thin separation between the EU and totalitarianism. At first elated that they have reached the promised land, it doesn’t take long for them to find the Polish border guards, equally cruel as their counterparts on the other side of the fence, sending them back where they came from. And so starts a seemingly never-ending back and forth.

Not everybody in this neck of the woods is an evil ogre. There is Jan, a Polish guard with a heavily pregnant wife whose conscience is mangled by the things his superiors make him do. And there is Julia, a psychiatrist who throws herself into political activism after an encounter with the Afghan lady we met before. Separated from the rest of them with only the Syrian boy Nur in tow, she becomes stuck in a swamp near Julia’s home. When Julia sees the young boy die before her eyes and the older woman thrown back into the cruel game played along the border after a brief hospital reprieve, something snaps and she joins a group of young activists that helps bewildered migrants stranded in the woods, putting their own lives selflessly at risk.

If there is any moral middle ground to be found in the forest it is in the perspective of Jan, a man who reluctantly participates in the human ping-pong game across the barbed wire. Indoctrinated by vile propaganda from the Polish government that says the people trying to cross the border are ‘weapons’ sent by Belarus dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko to weaken the EU, Jan’s conscience is in a power struggle with what he is led to believe. Sending small children into certain death understandably gnaws at you when your wife is about to deliver a baby.

The sad thing is that it is this perspective that gets the least exposure. It seems Holland doesn’t really know what to do with Jan, so she stays with the safer choices of either the misery of the migrants or the white saviour complex of Julia. At best the former can be labelled as an honest attempt at exposing the humanitarian crisis developing at Europe’s borders; a more cynical view is that it is straight-up misery porn, as Green Border wallows in an endless stream of gruesome humiliation of these poor souls at the hands of caricaturally evil border agents. No doubt the scenes depicted in the film happen in reality, but the sheer volume of atrocities Holland exposes us to is numbing, probably the opposite effect of what she hoped for. Once it switches to Julia in its final third the film at least builds up some tension, grounded by an excellent performance by Maja Ostaszewska as a woman so aghast at the hell that is mere meters away from her home that she feels a strong need to spring into action. Presumably Holland aims for people to follow Julia’s example once they witness the misery in Green Border. A naïve notion; if people still haven’t lifted a finger after the umpteenth boat sank somewhere near Lampedusa, one film isn’t going to make a difference.

The Lampedusa reference brings us to the artistic challenges of the film. When Gianfranco Rosi won the Golden Bear in 2016 with his own film about death on Europe’s (naval) border, Fuocoammare, he did so with an artistic approach that mostly pushed the misery into the background. This made the few moments where evil did rear its head all the more powerful. A more recent example is Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, a film about Nazi death camps that doesn’t show any violence (or Jewish victims, for that matter), yet still is one of the more harrowing Holocaust stories ever put to film. Green Border lacks any of the subtlety or smarts that these films possess, and it loses any potential power it has in the process. The choice to shoot this in black and white is seemingly purely an aesthetic one; a shame, for a contrast between the darkest shades of humanity and the lush greens of Białowieża Forest would have given Green Border some visually thematic heft, not to mention allowing it to actually show the colour of its titular border.

Green Border has a strong message, an important message even. But it is not a powerful message because Holland chooses to play it for the rafters. Just a message alone does not guarantee a good film, sadly a fact often overlooked when cinema shines its light on the world’s injustices. Green Border is, simply put, not a very good film. Must these stories be told, these cruelties be exposed? Most definitely. But overexposure of your message to the point of hammering it in is exhausting and a severe underestimation of your audience, paradoxically combined with an overestimation of the same audience’s willingness to actually do something about it.