Harrowing migrant drama puts spotlight on Europe border cruelty

By Crispian Balmer

VENICE (Reuters) – After the media was denied access to migrants desperately trying to cross the Polish-Belarus border, director Agnieszka Holland decided to step in and make a wrenching movie about their plight.

“Green Border”, which premieres at the Venice Film Festival on Tuesday, tells the story of refugees, charity workers, activists and border guards, whose lives intersect in the cold, swampy forests between the two east European countries.

Migrants started flocking to the border in 2021, after Belarus, a close Russian ally, opened travel agencies in the Middle East offering a new unofficial route into Europe – a move the European Union said was designed to create a crisis.

Poland refused to let them cross, leaving hundreds stranded in a freezing no-man’s land, and temporarily imposed an exclusion zone, forbidding reporters and human rights groups from approaching the area to see what was going on.

“It was impossible for the documentary makers and the journalists to go there, but we can re-create and do something that I know how to do, make a fictional film about events which are going on right now,” Holland said.

“We had to try to capture it in all (its) possible complexity and give justice and a voice to those who have been silenced and are voiceless,” she added.

Her black-and-white film shows a family from Syria and a woman from Afghanistan thrown back and forward across the border by brutal guards indifferent to their suffering, as activists struggle to try to bring them to safety.

Holland, who during a decades-long career has made films about the Nazi Holocaust and Communist tyranny, said the pushback called into doubt the European Union’s core values.

“If we go further on this road … the European Union, Europe, the continent of freedom, democracy (and) human rights will disappear. It will change into some kind of a fortress,” she said.

“Green Border” is highly critical of Poland’s rejection of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, contrasting it to the way the country welcomed in more than a million refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of neighbouring Ukraine in February 2022.

But the lead actress, Maja Ostaszewska, who herself went to the forests in 2021 to help the migrants, said the film was not making a political statement.

“It asks the eternal question. What would you do if someone came knocking on your door … You can open your door, you can help, or you can decide to pretend not to see,” she said.

“Green Border” is one of 23 movies competing for the Golden Lion award at the Venice festival, which runs until Sept. 9.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Nick Macfie)