Green Border review: muscular, urgent dramatisation of the refugee crisis

Agnieszka Holland’s powerful depiction of border-crossing has angered Polish authorities and refugee agencies in equal measure

Jalal Altawil as Bashir in Green Border. Photograph: Agata Kubis/Modern Films
Green Border
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Director: Agnieszka Holland
Cert: None
Genre: Drama
Starring: Jalal Altawil, Maja Ostaszewska, Behi Djanati Atai, Mohamad Al Rashi, Dalia Naous, Taim Ajjan, Talia Ajjan, Tomasz Włosok, Malwina Buss, Monika Frajczyk, Jasmina Polak
Running Time: 2 hrs 32 mins

Agnieszka Holland directs this muscular, urgent dramatisation of the refugee crisis across the no-man’s-land of the title.

For one Syrian family, including Bashir (Jalal Altawil), Amina (Dalia Naous) and their three children, as well as Amina’s father (Mohamad Al Rash), it is impossible to distinguish between eastern Poland and western Belarus; their destination is simply Europe.

The family land in Poland, supposedly en route to relatives in Sweden. Instead they are escorted to the border, robbed at gunpoint and instructed to run under razor wire into the forest. When they reach the other side of the woods they are sent back to Poland by Belarusian troops. And so on. As one pregnant woman notes, they are human footballs.

In common with the opening scenes of many contemporary horror films, failing phone batteries signify the misery to come. Injuries, swamps and dwindling food supplies ensure that the desperate refugees are entirely dependent on a few brave volunteers, including Julia (Maja Ostaszewska), a local psychiatrist who is drawn into the crisis by the screams of Leila (Behi Djanati Atai), an Afghan refugee.


Green Border, inspired by testimonies from surviving migrants, is an unsparing watch eerily counterpointed by the beautiful monochrome compositions of the film’s cinematographer, Tomasz Naumiuk.

Geopolitics are revealed in a slow, sometimes skewed drip feed. Belarusia’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, is denounced for “inviting” migrants to the Bialowieza Forest; the EU, which refused to finance protective structures for external borders, gets off comparatively lightly. Similarly, we get one “good” Polish soldier, Jan (Tomasz Włosok), a conflicted border guard and husband to a heavily pregnant wife.

The other side of the contested territory is afforded no such dramatic nuance, an absence that feels like a missed opportunity in a film that is otherwise determined to give voice and names to a human tragedy.

The cross-cutting between activism, brutish military figures and merciless degradation doesn’t always work. But the haunted faces of actors such as Jalal Altawil are hard to forget. An extended coda, in which Ukrainian refugees are warmly welcomed by the same Polish guards who tormented Syrian refugees, packs a serious punch.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic