Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland has remained defiant despite a wave of vicious political attacks and online hate speech as she prepares to release her Venice Special Jury Prize-winning refugee drama “Green Border” in Poland on Sept. 22.
“I find the orchestrated hatred organized by the highest Polish officials abominable and dangerous,” the three-time Academy Award nominee tells Variety. “It proves only how deeply true and important is our film, and that we’re showing the things and giving faces to people they wanted to hide by the lies and propaganda.”
“Green Border” explores the injustice and terror perpetrated along the border between Poland and Belarus from the perspective of refugees, activists and border guards, painting a damning portrait of the right-wing, anti-migrant Polish government’s response to the refugee crisis. In a glowing review from Venice, where the film was widely praised, Variety‘s Jessica Kiang described Holland’s “intense, intelligent broadside against frontier injustice and terror” as “a gripping account of the inhumanity and depravity that ensues when those fleeing persecution are made political pawns.”
The backlash from the Polish government, however, was immediate. On Sept. 4, even before the film’s world premiere, Poland’s hard-right justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro wrote on X (formerly known as Twitter): “In the Third Reich, the Germans produced propaganda films showing Poles as bandits and murderers. Today they have Agnieszka Holland for that.”
Since then, the inflammatory rhetoric from the right-wing ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which is running for re-election on Oct. 15, has only escalated. Mike Downey, a producer on “Green Border” and chairman of the European Film Academy, where Holland serves as president, tells Variety that “the aggression from the authorities has reached its peak with the release in Poland.”
Earlier this month, Poland’s education minister accused Holland of “spitting on the Polish uniform, spitting on the Polish security services, [and] spitting on the Polish Army,” while the country’s interior minister on Thursday described the film as a “disgusting lampoon,” calling its depiction of events along the border “extremely unfair, unauthorized, and harmful to border guard officers, soldiers [and] all those who defend the Polish border at the risk of their health and life.”
Meanwhile, speaking to Polish network TVP this week, President Andrzej Duda insisted that he was “sorry that such a film is being made,” echoing remarks by the head of Poland’s border guard officers that “only pigs sit in the cinema.” That phrase was commonly used by the Polish resistance during the Nazi occupation in World War II, when Third Reich propaganda films played in Polish theaters.
Like many Polish officials condemning Holland’s widely praised drama, Duda is not believed to have seen “Green Border.” “The contrast between the deeply moving reactions of those who have actually seen the film and hateful Polish politicians is strong,” says Holland. “I have to say that the kind of language, hate and brutality coming from the government I have seen only in the worst moments of communist times, or in the McCarthy era in the U.S. They are shameless.”
Ahead of the film’s domestic premiere on Sept. 20, Downey says that Holland was “completely pilloried on public television as an enemy of Poland,” adding that “there was a lot of online violence and a lot of aggressive, malevolent [attacks]. The usual death threats, the usual attacking of Agnieszka, claiming that she’s not Polish and that she should be caught, and that her head should be shaved like the collaborators in World War II. That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he continued. “I think that she’s in many ways in great danger.”
In the meantime, the interior ministry has produced a video that Polish cinemas will be required to play before each screening of “Green Border,” presenting the government’s perspective on its response to the refugee crisis. According to Downey, the constitutional court is also rumored to be seeking to issue an injunction to block the film’s distribution in Poland. “Of course, doing so would go against European law and freedom of speech laws,” he said. “But I don’t think that the Polish government is taking very much notice.”
While the ruling party and its allies in the right-wing press have ramped up their attacks on Holland, others have rallied to her support, with the European Film Academy, Poland’s Women in Film Association and the Federation of European Screen Directors among those who have expressed solidarity with the 74-year-old filmmaker. Meanwhile, the Directors Guild of America released a statement on Thursday defending Holland’s film and stressing that the guild will “continue to support the free speech rights of all directors.”
“The Directors Guild of America champions creative expression through the art of filmmaking and decries the recent attacks by the Polish Justice Minister and extremists on our member director Agnieszka Holland for her depictions of the brutality faced by refugees to Poland in her film ‘Green Border,’” read the statement. “We firmly believe directors like Agnieszka have a vital role to play in fostering discussion and reflecting societal problems through their work.”
On Monday, Poland’s Oscar selection committee will announce its choice to represent the country in the best international feature film race. Variety understands that “Green Border” is on the committee’s shortlist, and in a normal year might be considered a frontrunner, given the film’s Venice triumph and glowing reviews, as well as Holland’s previous Academy Award nominations. But it remains to be seen whether the selection committee — which is independent of the government — will be swayed by the ongoing political firestorm around the film.
Nonetheless, “Green Border” will be released on more than 250 screens by Polish distributor Kino Swiat on Friday. Downey said the filmmakers have been buoyed by a “big wave of support” on the internet, particularly from young Poles, who he hopes will “vote with their feet” at theaters across the country. “If the film isn’t banned, people are going to go to the cinema and see it and make up their own minds,” he said. “That’s the best we can hope for.”