The Białowieża Forest is one of the few places in Europe that reminds us of what the continent looked like before civilization spread over it. 130-year-old oaks and other leafy trees span the center of the nearly fifteen-kilometer area, and lynxes, wolves, and bison live here.
Two years ago, the virgin forest became a place where migrants heading through Belarus try to reach the European Union at all costs, Polish and Belarusian border guards throw the dead bodies of foreigners over the border fence like hot potatoes, and journalists, humanitarian workers or activists have forbidden entry. The forest became a vulnerable place not of European nature, but of its politics and the illusion of its own humanity.
At least that’s how Polish director Agnieszka Holland, who made the film Hranice about the ongoing humanitarian crisis, perceives it. The need to artistically map the situation was born in the director’s head at the moment when she realized that the area around the Belarusian-Polish border had become a “laboratory of cruelty and lawlessness”.
In an interview for Nauzal, she explained that the film was created out of a feeling of hopelessness. While dozens of people died in the border zone, European politicians argued with Belarus, which used refugees as “living projectiles” in a hybrid war, or fumed at Angela Merkel for speaking to Belarusian President Lukashenko on the phone, despite the rest of the EU agreeing to does not recognize him as the rightful leader of the country.
Read an interview with the Polish director, whose film caused a storm of response
Maybe that’s why you won’t see any politicians in Hranica. In his almost two and a half hour film, Holland prefers to follow ordinary people. It tells the story of a refugee family fleeing from Syria to Sweden, follows the fate of border guard Jan and his pregnant wife, and finally activists helping refugees trapped in the forest. The director claims that these actors have no voice in the whole crisis and that she therefore wanted to give them space in her film. The border is at its strongest when its heroes emerge from the screen in all their plasticity. Holland actively fights against reducing refugees to mere “bodies” and celebrates the heroism of helping Poles.
The most interesting hero of the film, whose director was labeled as a minion of propaganda directed against ordinary Poles, is in the end somewhat unexpectedly the border guard Jan. An ordinary man who conscientiously performs his work and in his spare time renovates a house for his future family undergoes a complicated transformation in the film. He experiences an internal struggle as he watches a pregnant woman fleeing from Africa lose her child in a brutal operation, while Jan’s partner, with whom he will soon move into a house with a new children’s room for their daughter, is waiting safely at home.
Jan is most like all of us. He is a flawed and also doubtful man who, despite all the evil of which he is a more or less active part, wants to do good. Without being sure what that good should actually look like.
Read the report straight from the scene of the crisis
The good and the bad
It takes very little to make the viewer feel guilty while watching Hranice, just like Jan: a single photograph, for example. Like when a young refugee wrapped in thermofoil in the middle of the forest finally wakes up enough to show his protector Julia (played by the well-known actress and activist Maja Ostaszewská) a picture of him happily posing with a guitar in his native country. A subtle moment has great power because it carries all the weight of stolen happiness and inspires more understanding than refugees in short clips explaining to the camera why they are fleeing their countries.
Then Hranice is too literal and ineffective. It has a similar effect to advertising videos of non-profit organizations. It tells stories that many of us have become deaf to: there are so many of them, they are so similar to each other and at the same time still so foreign that the brain has learned to ignore them. Agnieszka Holland set herself an extremely difficult task when she decided to try to wake up the audience from lethargy again.
It fails mainly in the moments when it gets too carried away with pathos. In Hranice, images with a biblical effect are repeatedly returned, in which activists caress the destroyed feet of migrants, hugging them as if they were their own children. Holland inadvertently turns the helpers into modern-day saints, pushing them into a role that the opposing party likes to mock. On the contrary, he says almost nothing about those who doubt.
“You don’t have a family,” a longtime friend explains to activist Julia why she doesn’t agree to help refugees. This is just a poor attempt on the part of the screenwriters to understand “the others”. And although it is true that the most complex character in the film is the border guard Jan, even with him, Holland leaves a lot of questions unanswered. When they return migrants across the Belarusian border, what do they actually think of them? And why did he join the Border Patrol in the first place?
It is perhaps too much to ask the director for an even greater level of understanding for opposing views on the matter. Hranice is a politically engaged film whose opinion cannot be doubted. But it is not very likely that he will convince someone “from the other side of the field” of his truth.
People and animals
The film enters Czech cinemas at a time of raging conflict in the Middle East and just days after France and Belgium deal with murderous attacks by Islamist extremists. But Hranice does not intend what furious Polish politicians or people who only know about the film hearsay attribute to it.
He just wants to humanize a problem that politicians have made an advertising campaign out of, while ordinary people suffer because of it. And the animals, if they are not as lucky as the birds in the Białowieża Forest, as well.
Poland / Czech Republic / France / Belgium, 2023, 147 min
Directed by: Agnieszka Holland
Screenplay: Maciej Pisuk, Agnieszka Holland, Gabriela Łazarkiewicz
Music: Frédéric Vercheval
Starring: Jalal Altawil, Maja Ostaszewská, Behi Djanati Ataiová, Tomasz Włosok, Mohamad Al Rashi, Dalia Naousová, Joely Mbunduová, Piotr Stramowski, Marta Stalmierská
In cinemas from 10/19/2023