Before it even arrived in movie theaters, “Green Border,” a film about the grim fate of migrants stuck at the Polish-Belarusian border, stirred up a storm in Poland, as the country gears up for a national election.
Directed by Agnieszka Holland, the movie won the special jury prize at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month, and was praised by international critics when it played shortly afterward at the Toronto Film Festival.
But it didn’t please government officials in Poland, who called the film “anti-Polish.” A state-owned broadcaster used a prime-time news segment to slam its director. Some border guards likened the movie’s viewers to Poles who watched Nazi propaganda films during World War II.
The feature, which was released in Poland on Friday, has touched a raw nerve in a country, with a painful history of its own, that was already on edge because of the war in neighboring Ukraine. The governing Law and Justice party is expected to face a tough battle in the election on Oct. 15, and to whip up support it has boosted the image of a nation threatened by migrants and the war raging next door.
“Green Border” depicts a migration crisis that erupted in late 2021 at Europe’s gateway: the forested border between Poland, which is a member of the European Union, and Belarus, a dictatorship, which is not. At the time, Polish and European authorities accused the president of Belarus, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, of selling tourist visas to migrants from the Middle East and Africa, who were seeking a way into the European Union, then busing them to Poland in order to destabilize the bloc.
In response, Poland’s government created a two-mile wide exclusion zone around the border and later installed a 116-mile-long, 18-foot-high barbed wire fence. It also deployed thousands of soldiers and border guards to push migrants back from Polish territory into Belarus But Belarusian authorities also ordered its border police to force migrants back into Polish territory. Many bounced back and forth for weeks, and sometimes months.
A network of activists and locals has provided stranded migrants with food, clothes, medicines and, sometimes, shelter, though at least 50 people have died and 200 have gone missing in the forest since the crisis started in late 2021, according to Anna Alboth from Grupa Granica, a grass roots aid group.
“Green Border” is the story of those entangled in the crisis: border guards, activists and migrants, including a Syrian family trying to reach a relative in Sweden, and an Afghan woman looking to settle in Poland.
In an interview, Ms. Holland, who is Polish, said that she could “no longer stand the feeling of hopelessness” faced with migrant tragedies. When the crisis arrived at Poland’s doorstep, she said she felt compelled to give a voice to its victims.
Those victims, she added, include the border guards, who she said have been put in “an impossible situation.” One of the film’s main characters is a young guard, played by Tomasz Wlosok, who is tormented after participating in a brutal pushback and eventually turns a blind eye to migrants hidden in a smuggler’s truck.
Government officials in Poland, who justified their tough border policy on national security grounds, accused Ms. Holland of presenting a distorted view of the crisis.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the chairman of the Law and Justice Party and Poland’s de facto leader, said that the movie was a proof of Ms. Holland’s hatred against Poland, and described the film as “shameful, repulsive and disgusting.”
The country’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, called it a “a collection of blatant lies” that aims to “discredit us in the West, and divert attention from Poland’s glorious and key role in helping the fighting in Ukraine.”
But no one went as far as the justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, who likened Ms. Holland to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, and compared her to “Soviets and Nazis” who “used propaganda films to destroy image of Poland and Poles.”
“I somehow expected that I would be attacked,” said Ms. Holland, who added that she had received hundreds of death threats and now has a full-time security detail. “But I did not expect such ferocity.”
The director lodged a complaint against Mr. Ziobro, and earlier this week a Warsaw court banned him from making further statements about her and her work, and from making comparisons between Ms. Holland and “criminal regimes.” Mr. Ziobro denounced the court’s decision as an attack on the freedom of speech.
When the standoff at the border erupted in 2021, many locals made parallels to the history of the region during World War II, when it was occupied first by the Soviets, then the Nazis. Under Nazi occupation, those caught helping or sheltering Jews risked the death penalty for themselves and their families. Some Poles participated in the Nazi atrocities, a fact that contradicts the patriotic narrative that Poland’s government likes to put forward.
Ms. Holland, who has Jewish origins and made three acclaimed movies about the Holocaust, said that the border crisis felt like a “renewal of the national trauma” for Poland. Although Poles helping migrants today face legal proceedings rather than execution, “the patterns of behavior” were similar, Ms. Holland said, with an indifferent majority and few individuals helping people in need.
“Green Border” was shot in just 30 days, last year. Russia had already launched its full scale-invasion of Ukraine, and Poles had astonished the world by generously welcoming millions of Ukrainian refugees.
The movie’s final scene pays homage to this spontaneous outpouring of solidarity: It shows Poles crowding border crossings, waiting for Ukrainians to welcome into their homes. The same border guards who had been deployed to push Middle Eastern and African families back through barbed wire now help Ukrainian children into the buses.
Ms. Holland said that her intention with “Green Border” was not to attack the government, but to encourage viewers to think more humanely. The election campaign had become increasingly brutal, she said, and all the parties involved, including opposition parties, had embraced a dehumanizing narrative about migrants.
“I have to speak up,” she said. “Even it is going to be a lone voice crying in the wilderness.”