“Green Border” and the deadly EU border regime7 min read

 In Central Europe, Culture, Focus, Format, Review, Reviews

The ‘Belarus-European Union Border Crisis’ is a clinical and abstract way of describing what happened on the Belarus-EU border in 2021. However, Green Border (Pol.: Zielona granica) by Polish director Agnieszka Holland is anything but clinical. Rather, it is an overwhelming, emotional, difficult, and important portrayal of an ageing autocrat’s cynical gambit and the EU’s unfortunate response.

In 2020, Belarus held a presidential election that saw longtime president Alexander Lukashenko win another term. The election was broadly condemned as rigged in favour of the incumbent, and most Western countries refused to recognise the election. Large-scale protests ensued. The violent crackdown that followed, as well as the interception of a commercial aeroplane to imprison a Belarusian dissident, further soured relations between the EU and Belarus. EU and US sanctions were imposed on Belarusian politicians and companies, throttling Belarusian mobility and freezing foreign assets. In response, Lukashenko concocted a rather bizarre scheme.

The dictator threatened to “flood the EU with drugs and migrants.” Belarus loosened its visa regime and provided more flights for people from conflict-affected countries like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, various African countries, and even Cuba. Word spread on social media that Belarus was offering a way into “Europe.” Through tour operators, thousands of people in these countries booked tickets to Belarus, where they were then driven by Belarusian army buses to the borders of EU countries, and were even provided tools to cut through the border fence.

What was waiting for them at the borders was not at all what was promised. The Polish border with Belarus is largely made up of the UNESCO-protected Białowieża Forest (the titular Green Border) — a harsh remote area, bitterly cold in winter and filled with treacherous swamps. Still more dangerous, however, was the Polish response. Polish border guards violently pushed the attempted migrants back across the Belarusian border.

Holland avoids a top-down view of politicians making choices behind desks but rather follows the actual people on the ground. As such, Green Border follows different characters caught up in this cynical geopolitical game: several prospective migrants, a border guard, a handful of activists, and a psychologist who lives in the area. This approach allows us multiple perspectives on the events that happened on the border. 

We follow, for example, a refugee family of three generations travelling from Syria, thinking they will have easy access to their relatives already living in Sweden. Things quickly turn out differently; Belarusian border guards shake them down and rush them through a hole in the border fence. After a day of wandering through Białowieża without much food or basic necessities, they are — illegally — picked up by Polish border guards and driven back to the Belarusian border. Later, the Belarusians violently drive them back into Poland, only for them to be violently pushed back again. In each iteration of this game, the refugees are beaten and bitten by dogs, their phones destroyed, and more and more of their belongings get lost or stolen until they have absolutely nothing left to survive the winter in Białowieża.

The filmmakers utilise a lot of handheld shots and eschew camera angles that are completely out of any character’s point of view. The result is that the viewer feels on the ground with the characters, with their stress, fear and increasing hopelessness, battered by the elements.

Holland does not shy away from emotional punches; her view on what is happening here is clear. This does not mean, however, that Green Border is a black-and-white portrayal of vicious border guards and virtuous refugees. Through the character of Jan, a Polish border guard, and with periodic views of Polish society, we see the fear of migrants as the fear of sexual assault, drug trafficking, and general chaos.

Migrants use the house Jan is building as a transit stop, damaging and soiling the place that should soon be the home of his unborn child. The need he feels to protect his house and pregnant wife from danger gets extended to his native Poland. This context hardly excuses the actions that Jan and his fellow border guards take, but it demonstrates the way that inhumane, violent actions can sprout from very human impulses. In the end, Jan himself secretly lets refugees pass and takes off his guard uniform, torn by the ethically perverse position he has been put in by his beliefs and his job as a border guard.

Throttling the efforts of anyone wanting to help is the state of emergency that the Polish government proclaimed in the border area. The use of this measure means that normal rules do not apply and that on the border, Poland has taken for itself the authority to suspend humanitarian rights and principles that are at the foundation of the European Union.

This is akin to the deadly “state of exception” that has been ruling the European Mediterranean. These states of exception allow EU members to consistently violate human rights on their borders, thereby violating EU policy. In Poland, the border crisis is no different; EU laws — such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights — are being broken.

For all these transgressions, it is perhaps easy to scapegoat Polish racism, the Polish right-wing regime, or even some imagined brutishness of rough Eastern Europeans with different values. This is likely part of the reason why the film has been so controversial in its native Poland, where it was denounced by Polish ministers and Border Guard institutions even before it was released.

Ironically though, the state of exception that allows the Polish regime to suspend basic human rights in its borderlands is the norm along European borders from Spain to Bulgaria. Refugees and migrants die in the Mediterranean all the time. Creating states of exception is, in fact, a clear, EU-wide tactic, and the Polish situation is just another iteration in a continued spectrum of human rights violations across most external borders of the EU.

While Holland shows abhorrent behaviour from the Polish border guards and certain Polish civilians, there are many instances of Polish people doing their best to help. The last third of the film is mostly dedicated to following Polish volunteers who are aiding the refugees as best they can. I am reminded of a chapter in Timothy Snyder’s book Black Earth, where he describes people who helped Jews during the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. Without fail, they later remark on their dangerous labour, without any reward, that it was simply the “right thing to do.”

In Green Border, some teenage African refugees do eventually manage to make it across, finding refuge with a Polish family that agrees to house them. There is initial awkwardness and some tension, but quickly the kids of the family bond over music. Holland seems to say that with a modicum of hospitality, we can reach out across cultures – there is no need for fear that demands this level of violence. 

The ending of the film sees Ukrainian refugees entering Poland and receiving help from those very same border guards that so violently opposed the predominantly African and Muslim migrants. The contrast in treatment speaks volumes about the perceived image of these non-European migrants.

The ‘Belarus-European Union Border Crisis’ is kind of an odd geopolitical event, a situation that is hard to conjure an image of in your mind. What Holland masterfully does as a director, is to put faces on the people involved in this crisis. How their initial hope is dashed and turned into fear and grief; how they are violated, dehumanised, humiliated, and sometimes even killed as pawns in some faraway geopolitical game. Did Lukashenko win? That is perhaps hard to say. But Green Border painfully and powerfully exposes the EU as not following those same human rights it preaches at home and abroad.

Feature Image: Green Border / Canva
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