Agnieszka Holland, a celebrated Polish film director, is known for historical dramas about some of humanity’s greatest crimes, such as the Holocaust or the Holodomor famine in Ukraine.
With this year’s Green Border, the near-present is in her sights, telling the story of the refugees, activists and border guards caught up in 2021’s geopolitical tension on the Polish-Belarusian border, when Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko gave an easy passage to refugees and migrants across the European Union’s swampy easternmost edge during a freezing winter.
It is Europe’s most politically sensational film of the year, winning the Venice Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize and provoking an unprecedented backlash among Poland’s nationalist government.
One minister said the film demonised Poles and that it was akin to Nazi propaganda. President Andrzej Duda called it “anti-Polish”.
As Poland heads to the polls on Sunday, Green Border, lauded by critics worldwide, is still topping the Polish box office.
Al Jazeera spoke with Holland about her film, politics, and the coming vote.
Al Jazeera: Your film has been described as a gift to the ruling right-wing populist Law and Justice party ahead of a narrowly fought election. Is it?
Agnieszka Holland: My goal was, very simply, like in my other movies which touched on crimes against humanity, to show the fate and destiny and the choices of ordinary people which are made in the turnaround of the history. So I was not thinking about elections when I was doing them.
Law and Justice believes that it will help them because they are building their campaign on the hate against refugees. And that hate is translated into action. And that hate is the most important part of their propaganda. They are doing the same things which other regimes have done before: stigmatise refugees or people of a different race or nationality as the enemy.
But despite this backlash, the people are going to see the film. People are discussing it, people are crying, expressing very deep emotions. That is what I wanted to do, to touch the hearts and conscience of my co-citizens.
Al Jazeera: You have had to appear publicly with bodyguards. Did you expect this kind of backlash from a drama film?
Holland: I didn’t expect that the attacks will be so brutal and shameless. It never happened before in a democratic country. Even if Poland is some kind of the hybrid democracy, that entire government – the party leader, president and everybody – are orchestrating a campaign against one artist, one filmmaker and one movie.
Migration is the most important question in Europe and maybe in the world right now, and which will decide the future of Europe. I believe that we are at a crossroads and where different choices still can be made, and the choice of the violence breaking the law and lies are the most dangerous.
Al Jazeera: Would you say you’re an activist or a filmmaker first?
Holland: They aren’t contradictory. When I’m making a movie, I’m not doing propaganda. I don’t want to agitate people or convince them of one particular ideological agenda. I try to show the complexity of the situation and the complexity of choices, and sometimes the tragic dilemmas that ordinary people are facing. What I try to do in my movies is to give the voice to those who are voiceless and who are forgotten by big history.
My films are historical, but they are facing contemporary issues and challenges. That’s why I filmed this in black and white.
At the time I had the idea for this story, which started on my soil, I was shocked by the cynicism of the government. And I was as angry that they are making some kind of the test on the population and isolating the area – forbidding the media and the humanitarian organisations, medical organisations and observers from coming to see what’s going on.
The explanation was given by (Law and Justice party leader and deputy PM) Mr Kaczynski himself. He said that Americans lost the war in Vietnam because they allowed the media to shoot what was going on there. And somehow it’s true. The images of the suffering of the local people and children moved American public opinion and their acceptance of the war changed. So it was quite cynically saying that we are doing terrible things, but you cannot see it.
Al Jazeera: Law and Justice has made you out to be an enemy of Poland when actually many of your films dealt with the crimes committed against Poles and about Poles rescuing Jews…
Holland: You have two Polands now. You have the Poland of Law and Justice and of hate and exclusion. And you have the Poland of the activists and the people who are helping others, regardless of the colour of their skin and if they are legal or illegal.
And if I’m promoting any Poland, it is the Poland of those people. And they are Polish as much as the border guards are Polish. Every single person, regardless of the uniform they are wearing or not has a choice to make.
Al Jazeera: How did you prepare for this film? Did you spend time with the activist group portrayed, Grupa Granica, or on the border?
Holland: With my co-writer, I was talking to the locals, to the activists, to the refugees, and also to the border guards in secret. They wanted to tell their story too, because they felt deeply damaged psychologically and morally by the situation. I had the overview from everybody. We had an incredibly wide number of witness statements.
Frankly, I don’t remember any time, even when making historical movies, that I did so much extensive research. So everything which is shown in the film, from the thermos flask being broken to the woman’s body being thrown over the fence, was documented by at least two independent sources.
Al Jazeera: Your film ends with quite a hopeful epilogue, showing how Ukrainians have been welcomed by the activists as well as the border guards…
Holland: It’s slowly changing. Before the elections, the government suddenly started to attack Ukrainians and say that they will not be helping any more. We see in Europe that populist and right-wing governments and parties are rising, and their main tool is to create fear of refugees and hate of those who can come and take our quiet life away.
Note: This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.