Green Border review – an angry and urgent masterpiece about Europe’s migrant crisis

<span>‘Film-making that comes out fighting’: Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border.</span><span>Photograph: Agata Kubis</span>
‘Film-making that comes out fighting’: Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border.Photograph: Agata Kubis

“They aren’t people. They are live bullets.” The dehumanisation of refugees has long been a key weapon in anti-migrant rhetoric. But even so, it’s hard to overstate the sickening gut-punch impact of this line of dialogue in Green Border, Agnieszka Holland’s formidable, furious masterpiece about the 2021 humanitarian crisis that unfolded in the exclusion zone between Poland and Belarus. The line is delivered during a rousing address from a senior official to a roomful of Polish border guards; the intention is to snuff out any lingering empathy that the guards might feel for the desperate, frightened people who have managed to cross the border from Belarus. The sentiment, we learn, has filtered down from the very top of the Polish power structure.

And it’s this – the vilification of refugees and casual cruelty that meets them – that Holland confronts with her remarkable drama. These are not, the film stresses, just statistics in a geopolitical game of one-upmanship. These are scared and vulnerable people who find themselves pawns in an impossible situation: they are three generations of a family who have fled Islamic State in Syria; an earnest, educated Afghan woman who hopes to join her brother; three music-mad teenagers from Africa; and a heavily pregnant woman who fears for the life of her unborn child. They could be any one of us.

Related: ‘Making this film was forbidden’: how Agnieszka Holland’s migrant thriller inflamed the Polish right

It’s a supremely accomplished work, a multistranded story shot in stark black and white and divided into four overlapping chapters, each focusing on a different perspective of the crisis at the border. It’s a situation that was cynically engineered by the Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, as a provocation to Europe and further aggravated by the actions of the Polish government. Widely circulated propaganda promised a safe passage into Europe across the border between Belarus and Poland. But refugees who grasped the opportunity found themselves met with hostility; they were strong-armed back and forth across the razor-wire barricades that cut through forest between the two countries. Those who managed to evade the police and the border forces had to contend with treacherous swamps, lacerating undergrowth and subzero temperatures.

All this, however, is in the future when we first meet the focus of the film’s initial chapter. Buoyed up by relief and optimism, Bashir (Jalal Altawil) and his wife, Amina (Dalia Naous), are escaping Syria with their baby and their two older children, plus Bashir’s elderly father (Mohamad Al Rashi). Seated near them on the flight to Minsk is Leila (Behi Djanati Atai), an Afghan woman travelling solo who asks to join the family on their journey to the border. The crossing – under cover of darkness and accompanied by grumbling gunfire in the distance – is nervy and uncomfortable. But it’s not until the following day that the gravity of their plight starts to become clear.

Holland doesn’t pull her punches when it comes to showing the abject cruelty to which refugees are subjected, but one of the most effective indicators of the family’s status is a relatively small detail: the way they engage with their phones. On the flight over, a phone is a distraction to buy some peace from a fractious child. Leila uses hers to take tourist shots from the minivan that ferries them to the border crossing. Within 48 hours, the phone has become an essential lifeline; the only hope of emerging from the cyclical nightmare of the exclusion zone. A battery pack is more valuable than food. It’s no accident that the more ruthless of the guards on both sides of the border smash the phones of migrants: it’s the most effective way to destroy hope.

The more ruthless of the border guards smash the phones of migrants: it’s the most effective way to destroy hope

Not all guards are the same. The second chapter of the film follows Janek (Tomasz Wlosok), a husband and soon-to-be father. Janek works as a border guard because he believes that it’s his duty, but he has to drink himself sick on home-distilled schnapps each night to wipe away the daily miseries of the job.

On the other side of the ideological divide are the activists, the focus of the third chapter. A group of committed humanitarian workers, they respond to distress calls from stranded refugees, offering food, water, dry clothes, medical assistance and legal advice. But they must abide by the law when it comes to hiding or transporting refugees. To break the strict set of ground rules is to risk facing prosecution on human trafficking charges.

Finally, the fourth chapter focuses on Julia (Maja Ostaszewska), a recently widowed therapist who has moved to the rural border country for a new start. An encounter with Leila, who is trapped in the swamp and close to drowning, shocks Julia into action. She opens her home to the activists and their operations, but comes to realise that she needs to do more than hand out soup and solace.

It’s a marked change of pace for veteran director Holland, who, while no stranger to political themes in her films, has tended towards handsome, genteel prestige dramas such as Mr Jones (about the Ukrainian famine) and Charlatan (about a healer in communist Czechoslovakia). Green Border is a very different beast: it’s vital, angry and propulsive. This is film-making that comes out fighting. It has the principled, unflinching focus of Michael Winterbottom’s In This World. And it could not be more timely.

• In UK and Irish cinemas now