TIFF 2023 Review: “Green Border” Crisply Captures a Situation That’s Rough Around the Edges

Things get complicated almost immediately in “Green Border,” boarding a plane destined for Belarus where a family of Syrians hopes to find refuge from civil war in October 2021. Amina (Dalia Naous), the family matriarch thinks she’s found someone to talk to, looking over at Leila (Behi Djanati Atai), the middle eastern woman next to her, but no such luck when Leila explains in English she can’t understand what Amina’s saying in Farsi, and Amina’s father-in-law sitting behind them has to translate, offering a less than exact interpretation. Nonetheless, the two share the same circumstances, bound for a foreign country with their future largely unknown and when Amina’s husband Bashir (Jamal Altawil) has arranged a meeting at the border with his Poland-based brother, Leila is able to hitch a ride, squeezed in the back with two of the family’s three kids while their newborn is in front with their mother. What none of them could know is that while officially both Belarus and Poland are said to welcome refugees with open arms, unofficial policy of the border patrols on both sides is to kick them across to the other side, leaving the refugees confused beyond the violence perpetrated upon them in order to make it undesirable to return.

After establishing herself with such features as “Europa Europa,” Agnieszka Holland has kept busy in between directing TV, perhaps most notably an ongoing collaboration with David Simon that yielded some episodes of “The Wire,” which in both its ambition and its methodical and engrossing deconstruction of the organizational failings of public policy “Green Border” most resembles. Broken into five segments much like the Baltimore-set drama’s five seasons, each aligned with a different facet of the situation if not exactly POV, the film shows a humanitarian crisis exacerbated by a conflict that begins well ahead of the borders themselves when long-held local attitudes trump national government-stated intentions and those in charge take them for PR. Holland doesn’t spare the brutality suffered by those caught in the middle, but she puts a human face on all sides of the situation as Leila and the family she followed into the forest are snuck under some barbed wire into Poland, believing they’ll receive sanctuary as part of the European Union, but instead find indifference or far worse after being caught by border patrol and thrust into no man’s land, with a fellow refugee saying he’s been tossed back and forth across the border at least five or six times.

“Why don’t you help us?” Leila can be heard screaming as she’s wrestled to the ground by Polish guards, and in the film’s stark black-and-white, it is not her that you see in anguish, but rather Jan (Tomasz Wlosok), a stoic foot soldier who appears to be just the kind of guy who’s simply following orders. He is surely part of the problem, but when admonished by his commanding officer for taking a call from his pregnant wife in the middle of an explanation of how the refugees “shouldn’t be seen as people, but as live bullets” when they’re “weapons of Putin and Lukashenka,” one can see the true villainy, which extends beyond any one person.

Phone calls, incidentally, become a fascinating part of “Green Border,” when refugees have their phones taken from them and wantonly destroyed, and the ability to connect with the outside world or not becomes a mark of freedom. Surely not incidentally, it’s how you get to know Julia (Maja Ostaszewska), a Polish psychotherapist who conducts sessions over Zoom post-COVID and living near the exclusion zone, it saves her and her patients at least a few unwanted checkpoint stops, and she becomes the focal point of the second half of “Green Border,” uniquely positioned geographically to aid a group of activists who provide supplies to refugees against all odds, though fear of the guards on both sides of the border prevents them from doing much more.

After devoting much of her career to shining a light on atrocities of all kinds, Holland’s full embrace of her righteous indignation at the still-unfolding situation on the border of her native Poland electrifies “Green Border,” but the director is careful to note not only what people are capable of in terms of dehumanizing others, but how it inspires ingenuity among those whose compassion knows no bounds. As devastating as its most heartwrenching moments are, particularly when it comes to its central Syrian family, the film allows for hope when it insists that individuals can make a difference and while everyone looks lost in the woods, Holland sees the forest for the trees.

“Green Border” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival on September 12th at 6 pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox 2, September 13th at 5:50 pm at the Scotiabank 4 and September 15th at 12:30 pm at the Scotiabank 4.

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