Before the New York Film Festival premiere of her latest opus, Green Border, legendary director Agnieszka Holland wished everyone a good screening: “I would tell you to enjoy the film, but that would not be appropriate.”

It was an apt warning for the harrowing, exquisite film that unfolded. Green Border focuses on the treatment of migrants trying to cross from Belarus to Poland so they can find asylum in the European Union. As a result, Holland is now on the shit list of nearly every high-ranking Polish politician, from the president to the Minister of Science and Higher Education. What a shame they’re so blinded by their station that they can’t even appreciate magnificent works of art. Green Border is a riveting, finely crafted, deeply human accounting of the atrocities we make permissible in the name of nationalism.

The film is told in several parts that focus on key players in the border crisis: refugees, border guards, activists. It opens with a Syrian family on a flight to Belarus, their spirits high as they wait for the easy passage from Belarus to Poland––thus, the European Union––that a Swedish family member has promised. Their hopes are quickly dashed when, after entering a forest on the border of the two countries, Polish and Belarusian border guards force them into a brutal cycle of passage and rejection. As they volley between the warring nations, the migrants are subject to beatings, starvation, and abject dehumanization. This is no accident: in a later scene, a Polish officer tells a group of guards not to think of these refugees as people, but weapons of Putin.

Green Border is an epic that would have taken a lesser filmmaker months, even years, to film and edit. Yet it was shot just this year in a jaw-dropping 24 days. Due to that tight turnaround, Holland and cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk filmed in black-and-white. That choice, coupled with Naumiuk’s frenetic handheld camerawork, lends the film an air of nonfiction. These may be dramatized events, but Holland and her co-writers, Maciej Pisuk and Gabriela Łazarkiewicz-Sieczko, really did their homework.

Performances are particularly remarkable––all the more because some cast members are refugees themselves. Though no character in Green Border feels superfluous, the migrant family’s story is so urgent and moving that it’s hard to leave them behind for even a scene. The grandfather (Mohamad Al Rashi) and Leïla (Behi Djanati Atai), an Afghan refugee who joins their party, are especially excellent, but every performance is irreplaceable. Holland even makes the family’s infant a key character.

She focuses on family––especially motherhood––throughout Green Border. Mothers, particuarly expecting mothers, bear some of the worst treatment in the film, but these scenes do not feel crammed in for maximum shock or pathos. Perhaps the writers included these characters because they wanted to underscore the biology that unites all human beings, regardless of ethnicity or nation. There is a pregnant Polish character in the film, and her torture-free pregnancy stands in notable contrast to the experiences of her migrant peers. Like all the best activist films, Green Border is specific and clear enough to stir even a clueless outsider. You could go into this film knowing little more than its title and come out ready to personally run thermoses of hot food over the Belarusian border. With films like Europa Europa and Angry Harvest, Holland proved herself particularly adept at crafting humanistic dramas that shock the conscience. Green Border may be her most important film to date.

Green Border screened at the 61st New York Film Festival.

Grade: A-

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