Female Filmmakers In Focus: Agnieszka Holland


Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland has spent most of her career pushing artistic and political boundaries. After completing high school in Warsaw, she studied at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU) in Prague. While living in Czechoslovakia, Holland witnessed the Prague Spring of 1968 and was arrested and imprisoned for supporting the dissident movement. After graduating from FAMU in 1971 she returned to Poland where she cut her teeth working as an assistant to directors Krzysztof Zanussi and Andrzej Wajda before emigrating to France in 1981 just as martial law was imposed in Poland. She has since worked in many countries, including directing episodes of David Simon‘s groundbreaking shows “The Wire” and “Treme” here in the United States. 

Holland distilled her activist spirit into her politically charged films, which often center on the Holocaust and many of which have garnered international acclaim. In 1985 her West German film “Angry Harvest,” based on a novel written by Hermann Field and Stanislaw Mierzenski while imprisoned by the Polish government, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 58th Academy Awards. A few years later her film “Europa Europa,” based on the true life story of German-Jewish Solomon Perel, who survived the Holocaust as a boy by joining the Hitler Youth, received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. In 2011 her film “In Darkness,” inspired by the life of Leopold Socha, who sheltered a group of Jews who had escaped from the Lwów Ghetto in the sewers of the Polish city, also received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

Her latest drama “Green Border,” caused a firestorm upon its release in Holland’s native Poland, including harsh criticism from government leaders, review bombing on popular Polish film websites, and even protests. Although highly regarded by critics who screened it at festivals in Venice, Toronto, New York, and Chicago, the film was ultimately not chosen to represent Poland at last year’s Academy Awards. 

The searing drama takes a clear-eyed and critical look at the man-made refugee “crisis” at the border between Poland and Belarus. In 2021, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko lured several thousand asylum seekers, mainly Syrian, Kurdish, and Afghan, though some Congolese as well, to the country promising easy transit over the border to the European Union. In the titular green border, the forest that connects the two countries, the right-wing government officials in Poland erected barbed-wire fences and created a militarized security zone where aid workers and doctors were forbidden, essentially stranding the refugees in a limbo of violence and neglect. 

Holland’s film, which she made in collaboration with activists who are still currently working to aid refugees on the border, is split into chapters following a family of Syrian refugees who are joined by an Afghani woman with ties to Poland, a young border guard in way over his head, a group of activists working through the many hoops created by the government in order to aid the refugees, and a woman named Julia who is radicalized after she witnesses the death of a refugee not far from her secluded home. The film ends with an epilogue that highlights the stark contrast between how these refugees, mostly from the Global South, were treated with violence and the warm welcome the people of Poland gave to Ukrainian refugees at the start of that war. 

Largely inspired by true events, “Green Border” asks us all to take a cold, hard look at our capacity for empathy and to resist those who would dehumanize our fellow human beings. 

For this month’s Female Filmmakers in Focus column, RogerEbert.com spoke to Holland over Zoom about the rise of fascism, the effectiveness of propaganda, the fight to preserve our shared sense of empathy, and how art can connect us all.

Do you think growing up behind the Iron Curtain and studying in the Czech Republic and working in Paris helped build the lens with which you look at the world, and do you think that helps you have a more of a critical eye on both Poland and the current state of the European Union?

I have a critical view of the world altogether, not only the European Union but also the United States. I live partly in the U.S. and lived steadily for ten years in Los Angeles. I’ve done some television in the U.S. during its revolutionary time, like “The Wire” and “Treme.” That was, for me, a great political experience. Working with David Simon and seeing America, American cities, and the tragedies of American cities through his eyes gave me insightful knowledge of American politics, which I couldn’t have had any other way. Many events and situations during the last ten years weren’t a surprise to me. The evolution of the Republican Party, for example, and the acceptance of extremism and the polarization of the country. 

A very similar situation, somehow, is happening in Poland and in a lot of European countries. I decided quite a long time ago that I see the issue of migration as the most crucial for the future of Europe and the future of the world altogether. It will shape who we will be in ten years, our attitude, our choices, our capacity to deal with these issues humanly, and to see how difficult it is for the citizens of richer countries, but at the same time, not to lose humanity. 

So, my experience as the child of Jewish and Polish parents and, knowing the story of the Holocaust from my closest ancestors and, living through the totalitarian regime the communist regime, and being a political refugee in France, being arrested in Czechoslovakia, and I think all of those personal experiences helps me to feel. After making several movies about the Holocaust and one about Stalin’s crimes, it gave me some sensibility to recognize the moment when fascism was born, when the egg of a serpent was growing. And I am afraid we are living exactly in that kind of time. 

“Green Border” speaks about a very specific situation on the Polish-Belarusian border, which started three years ago and is still going on; even with the change of government, the crisis is still escalating on both sides. Putin’s side and the European Polish politicians’ side are using that crisis to profit. They are profiting from people’s suffering, and that is something I cannot accept.

With capitalism’s ascension to take over governments, do you think we’re in a similar era of seismic change to what the world was going through in the 1980s? When the Berlin Wall was falling, the Soviet Union was collapsing, and here we had Reagan and “greed is good” as a motto? Do you think we’re coming into what happens when we embrace that ethos as a culture and as a world?

Yeah, we are. We are going to the opposite of those hopes that this is the end of history, which Francis Fukuyama said. We see that this is not true. It started, in my opinion, on September 11, but it’s now growing everywhere. The Berlin Wall was falling, but now we are building the Berlin Wall around as a fortress for Europe. Two days ago, the new democratic government gave the soldiers on the border permission, with the guarantee of impunity, to shoot the migrants as they felt.

I felt several scenes in “Green Border” reflected themes similar to those in your earlier film “Europa Europa.” In particular, the scene with Jan (Tomasz Włosok), the border guard, and the propaganda he’s being taught in his training session. That reminded me of the scene in Solek (Marco Hofschneider)’s Nazi youth classes.


Are there parallels that you see between these two situations and the way that racist propaganda is used to manipulate the minds of ordinary people?

Yeah, it is very efficient. It was very efficient in Germany in the 1930s. It was very efficient in the Soviet Union. It is very efficient now in different countries. In 2015, there were general elections in Poland, and it was also the first very big migration crisis due to the Syrian war. There was a panic in Europe that they were coming, you know, massively, in the millions. Polish society was ready to accept the refugees. About 70% of people responded to opinion polls saying that they think that we have to help. Three months later, after a very intense propaganda campaign made by the authoritarian nationalistic party, which had just won the elections, they said the most racist things. That migrants posed a big danger, that they were killers, and that they were spreading viruses and parasites. Only 30% of the people wanted to let them in. That was after only a few months of that kind of propaganda. 

But part of the problem, and I think why the people changed their minds so far and so quickly, was because the democratic liberal parties didn’t oppose this racist narration, because they were afraid that the people would think that they want to let all refugees come, and they’ve been afraid to take that stance. So, the people of Poland only had one narrative with no counter-narrative. It’s very easy to awaken fear and hate in people. I think that people in general, except some psychopaths, have the same potential for good as they do evil, but you need to cultivate it somehow. And it takes much more work and courage to cultivate good than it does evil. So the politicians go for the second solution. 

That makes me think of Bogdan (Maciej Stuhr) in “Green Border,” who is so angry with the hypocrisy he sees, and Julia (Maja Ostaszewska), who wants to keep her head down. But then when she sees with her own eyes the death of a refugee, that’s what finally radicalizes her. What are your thoughts on why radicalizing people towards empathy is much more difficult?

It is, but at the same time, the same Polish society, which is now so eager to shoot these refugees, was massively helping Ukrainian refugees. It was a very spontaneous wave of massive solidarity. People have been doing a lot of sacrificing, taking time off from work for weeks and weeks to go to the border to help, or even to go to Ukraine, even when it is dangerous. They’ll even take the people to their houses. They like themselves when they take that action. It is some kind of positive narcissism. You know, “Oh, we are so generous. We are good.” 

People can be manipulated on both sides or left to their free will. Unfortunately, with the modern media, manipulation is much easier. We now have social media, the internet, and artificial intelligence. These powerful tools allow people to choose hate and fear in place of empathy and curiosity. 

I particularly loved the scene where the kids bond over the French hip-hop song. I thought it was a lovely way to show you that art can really connect people. How did you land on that particular song?

A situation like that happened in my friend’s house. They had sheltered a few African teenagers, hiding them for a few days. They had children who spoke French, so the kids could speak to these refugees from French-speaking Africa. After one hour, the ice was completely broken, and they started to talk about music. It happened that they all were interested in rap. After a while, you can forget completely that they come from such different experiences and their destinies and futures are so far away. And at the same time, it’s so easy to connect, especially for those young people who are not so overloaded with fear.

I wanted to put it in the film because I think it is somehow optimistic. It’s beautiful, and it’s true. So, when I cast those teenagers, who were originally from the Congo but living in Brussels, I asked them what song they would be interested in singing. They told me about that particular songwriting style and the song “Mourir mille fois” by Youssoupha, who is a popular rapper of Congolese descent. Then it happened that the actor who plays the young Polish kid is also a rapper, and he also knew that song. So it became logical and true, and we and the artist granted us the right to use that song, which I like. I think it is very powerful.

In terms of the screenwriting process, I know you said that pretty much everything in this film happened in real life or a version of it happened. As you were gathering all these stories, when did you decide to structure the film into four parts and end with an epilogue?

We finished the first draft of the script before the war in Ukraine. It originally ended, actually, with the teenagers or with the family being released by the border guard. But after the war began, for a while, we wondered if it would make our story irrelevant anymore. Then I realized both stories are different pieces that make one piece. So, we added the epilogue. 

The four-part structure came first. Early on, the concept was that we would not focus on one particular place, moment, or character. Instead, we will try to give different perspectives on the story through different points of view through the most people involved in the drama and give them each voice and face. This was important because the refugees have been dehumanized by the propaganda. All refugees have been presented as violent terrorists, pedophiles, and even zoophiles. 

The activists have been presented as traitors and Putin’s useful idiots, so I wanted to give them space. The propaganda presented the border guards as heroes, superheroes even defending our borders, and also by the others as very cruel and sadistic people. But in reality, they are neither. They are just uniformed forces suddenly put into a situation they have not been trained or prepared for, a situation that broke some of them.

So, after all our research and many conversations about the various paths the film could take, we shaped the structure. The process was not so long because we started in September, and by the end of December 2021, we had the script ready enough to show around for funding. The longest part was trying to find enough money to shoot the movie. It took us one year. I wanted to shoot in March and April of 2022, but we didn’t start filming until March 2023.

I wanted to ask about the way you work with your actors because a lot of this film, in particular, is carried by the emotions they express with their faces and bodies. Do you use a particular technique to bring that out in them?

It was pretty easy for the Syrian and some African actors because they had that experience under their skin. The Syrian actors were refugees themselves. They went through very dramatic situations, and they also know the story of their people, the war, the refugee camps, the hopelessness of that life, and the cruelty of the many different uniformed forces on many different borders. So, it was easy for them to find themselves back in that situation without many notes. 

Same for some of the Polish actors as well. For example, the main Polish actress, Maja Ostaszewska, who plays Julia, went to the border as an activist several times. She’s a very well-known actress, so she became a spokeswoman for the activist movement. So she was also my consultant because she had some training in helping the people in the forest. We also had the real consultants play little parts in the scenes when the activists were helping refugees. We recreated situations that were so real that people started to play like they were in real life. We shot it a bit like a documentary.

You mentioned the woods, which I think can be a fascinating metaphor. You’ve used the woods in a lot of your films, including the first one I saw when I was a kid, “The Secret Garden.” I love how you film their verdantness in your films, especially “Europa Europa,” where you have this extreme violence contrasted with the beautiful green of the grass and the woods. But here in “Green Border,” the woods have more of a dark Brothers Grimm vibe to them. Could you talk a bit about the duality of forests and how they’re both magical and terrifying places?

Well, that forest is very beautiful. The people living there, and all of Poland, are very proud of that forest. It’s the oldest forest in Europe, and it has a lot of very natural spots that are untouched by mankind, as well as a lot of wild animals and everything. So tourists go there a lot to enjoy it, and nature lovers move to that area. Then suddenly, that forest changed into a kind of horror place. When you go out to pick mushrooms, you might step over the dead body of some young man.

It is still quite warm in the fall, but the nights are very cold. One young refugee died in the forest because of hypothermia. He froze to death. My activist friend found him on a bed of flowers, lying totally naked because he had taken his clothes off. When you are dying of hypothermia, actually, you feel this incredible heat. So he removed his clothes and lay naked on a bed of flowers. It was like an image of, I don’t know, Jesus Christ or something. It stayed with my friend, who could not work and speak for a long time afterward. It was so tragic. 

This film is bleak, but there are wonderful pockets of empathy and hope. What do you want audiences to take away from the film once they’ve watched it?

I hope they will at least embrace the feeling that we are all humans, which is the most important thing. If we change our values about human rights, freedom, democracy, respect for others, and equality to hold on to our comfort, we will lose our comfort and our values by the end of the day. We will remain just with our fear and our pain.

Are there any women filmmakers or films directed by women that you particularly think audiences should seek out?

There are many talented women directors, especially in France. Some of them have won important festivals like Cannes and Venice. Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall” was nominated for many Oscars and Golden Globes. 

I also have two heroes from the past. One is Agnès Varda, who died a few years ago. She was the most courageous, talented, creative, and original woman director, so it’s worth it to go through her filmography. The other is Czech filmmaker Věra Chytilová, especially one of her films from the 1960s, “Daisies,” which is the most anarchistic, feminist, and artistic statement. It is inspiring, I think, for young filmmakers.

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