The Filmmaker Must Guide Me There: Our Review of ‘Green Border’

Posted in Theatrical by - June 28, 2024
The Filmmaker Must Guide Me There: Our Review of ‘Green Border’

When I was in the ninth grade, we looked at some moral dilemmas as part of a series of classes on moral reasoning. There were your standard, canonical moral dilemmas: the plight of Jean Valjean, the Trolley Problem, the insider trading dilemma; there was also one that was so dark and shocking, that I’ve frequently thought about in the prevailing fourteen years.

Here’s the play: you’re part of a group of concentration camp escapees trying to flee the S.S. under the cover of dark, when a baby starts crying. What do you do with the mother and the baby?

I’ve thought about this since, because as a teacher who occasionally has to utilize stages of moral reasoning with my students, I would never throw this scenario at them. There are a couple of reasons for this. One, the example is, in some senses, too real. Something like The Trolley Problem is so abstract is becomes absurd, which allows for actual metacognition. Two, the specificity of Holocaust+Crying Infant+Mother renders the dilemma into a humanity play. There is something innate within us to over empathize with those who are helpless and defenceless, and very few humans are as defenceless as a crying infant. It is ultimately too easy for a fourteen-year-old in a Western school – safe, sheltered and secure – to simply say “all of us go down with the ship, let’s move on and stop thinking about this.”

The key part there is the last part: let’s stop thinking about this. Green Border – the latest from Polish auteur Agnieszka Holland – is a film that does something akin to the goofy moral dilemma of my yesteryears. The first half of the film follows a group of refugees who are a part of the latest horrifying chapter in the European Migrant Crisis. These migrants seek passage through the Belarussian-Polish border. Namely, the chief figure here is Bashir (Jalal Altawil, also one of the film’s co-writers), a devoted father seeking passage for his family and grandfather (Mohamad Al Rashi). The eponymous Green Border is a forest. The metaphor comes clear into view from the film’s opening sequence, as colour leeches out of the screen atop a drone shot of said forest.

For the politically uninitiated, Green Border takes place in 2021. The film encompasses an event of hybrid warfare, undertaken as part of a ploy from Belorussian dictator and Putin puppet Aleskandr Lukashenko. Belorussian propaganda encouraged migration to Belarus as a waypoint, on the promises of aiding migrants in crossing boarders into the European Union. The campaign was one of destabilization. If the governments of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia were forced to devote resources to this, it could destabilize their countries and sow tension between them and the other members of the E.U. In some senses, this was seen to be retaliation for undermining confidence in the – clearly rigged – results of the 2020 Belarussian Election.

Those who were unsuccessful in crossing the Green Border were routinely abused by Belorussain border patrol. However, on the other side of the fence, things were equally awful. One of the most interesting components of Green Border is the film’s structure. It is ostensibly divided into three acts, but is really two halves. One of those three acts focuses on a border guard, Jan (Tomas Włosok), who exists as our witness to the brutality of the Polish border guards.

The guards are under strict orders to violently deny entry and – in some cases, quite literally – throw refugees and asylum seekers out of the country. Holland refuses to avoid depicting barbarity. There is one genuinely and deeply upsetting use of foreshadowing involving barbed wire that made me recoil. Cinematographer Tomasz Naumik’s use of handheld, veritestyle cinematography captures every moment in gory detail. There’s an evocative response that Holland seeks, and usually she gets it.

Personally though, I wonder how much long-term effect this actually has. The half of the film that centers around the plights of refugees largely centers around families. Young kids. Pregnant women. The juxtaposition is obvious, but I wonder if it is ultimately too easy for an audience member to check out, to recognize that, ultimately, they’re watching a fiction film. The truly great complicity parable of the 2020s thus far is Glazer’s The Zone of Interest. Now that’s a film which becomes so detached that you literally feel guilty about the fact that you can comfortably leave the theatre space when the film ends. Ironically, the austere detachment of Glazer’s masterwork inversely makes me think about my place in the world.

And as I sit here, in my airconditioned room, on my laptop, writing about a film that I got to see in advance, I’m not nearly as aware of my own privilege as I was in January watching Zone of Interest. Oh, don’t me wrong: I am aware of it. But I’m only aware of it via proximity to the subject matter, and that is the real difference here. I was once fortunate enough to interview Holland, and when I asked her about her penchant for making biopics, she responded by claiming that she was only drawn to biopics that were written like fiction.

I’m not going to suggest that Holland does not have better storytelling instincts than I do – she does – but I think there is a dangerous game that is played when the fiction of political art becomes weight by topic association. Almost every review of this film will state that “Green Border is an important film.” And it is. But ultimately, the response can’t be automatic. In other words, you cannot set me up to be the fourteen-year-old where it is too easy for me to check out. I don’t always have to think here, and that is a problem.

Much of technique does Green Border few favours in this regard. The score of the film only seems cloyingly click in when Bashir and his family have to engage in some desperate gambit for survival. The film’s use of Black and White also seems to undermine the film. It’s definitely a trigger point for me, but I always find that a Black and White film needs to justify its usage. I’m not entirely sure that the film does so.

In a sense, the success of Europa Europa – a film that I consider to be the greatest Holocaust film – is that it actually is a moral dilemma. There’s a shot that I find so profound in that film, it astounds me. Solomon, a Jewish youth attempting to survive by ostensibly hiding in plain sight as a Nazi youth, has sown together his circumcised penis. As he gets deeper and deeper into being a Nazi, Holland cuts to a shot of his festering genitals. The metaphor is obvious here: denying his own humanity has rotted him from the inside out. At its core, that is what most moral dilemmas come down to. How do you retain your humanity when the structures of the world won’t let you?

As Holland as gotten more overtly political, she’s become less interested in that kind of provocation. She still has it in some senses. Here, it manifests itself in the form of Julia (Maja Ostaszewska), a psychologist turned activist who seeks to ferry potential refugees to safety. Julia becomes the focus of the second half of the film, most of which works. This section contains some of those trademark Holland visual metaphors. One such shot involves Julia looking into the sky and seeing a flock of birds flying in unison, a small subset tucked behind a larger group. The metaphor is quite profound actually: who has more humanity here, the birds or the humans?

Yet, in another particularly memorable image, Bashir and his family sit in front of a wall emblazoned with the E.U. symbol. Really, that’s the film that Holland is making, not the one above. It is ultimately really hard to make that film. Holland doesn’t succeed as much she probably would hope that she does. Green Border still works, but in doses rather than holistically. I might remember it, but I also remember a moral dilemma from fourteen years ago, and how I checked out of it. I can’t do that. I have to think. I try to, but the filmmaker must guide me there.

This post was written by
Thomas Wishloff is currently an MA student at York University. He is new to the Toronto Film Scene, but has periodically written and podcasted for several now defunct ventures, and has probably commented on a forum with you at some point. The ex-Edmontonian has been known to enjoy a good board game, and claims to know the secret to the best popcorn in the world.
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