Agnieszka Holland in Brussels, February 2024. | Photo: ©GpA Agnieszka Holland GpA

Agnieszka Holland on migration: Europe must choose ‘between comfort and values’

We caught up with director Agnieszka Holland to mark the release of her latest film, Green Border. In Poland a change of regime has brought a wave of hope. But Holland is concerned about the rise of far-right rhetoric – and an "annihilation" of migrants that she sees looming on the horizon.

Published on 26 February 2024 at 14:47
Agnieszka Holland GpA Agnieszka Holland in Brussels, February 2024. | Photo: ©GpA

Agnieszka Holland is a prolific Polish director. In a career spanning more than fifty years, she has scored numerous critical successes, including her films Europa Europa (1990) and In Darkness (2011). Her work has won numerous awards.

Her latest film, Green Border (released in 2023 in Poland) depicts the treatment of migrants at the Polish-Belarusian border. Green Border, which has been vilified by Poland’s far right, won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2023. We met her at the premiere in Brussels.

Voxeurop: Why did you make this film?

Agnieszka Holland: I've been following the migration situation closely since 2015. I've watched Europe's confused, cowardly and inconsistent response. But when the issue came knocking at my door, I felt obliged to speak out. Not least because I've devoted so much of my career to telling the stories of crimes against humanity.

Your film was controversial, and you have been threatened and abused. How are you today, how do you feel?

It's getting better, because the ultra-conservative nationalist government that attacked me lost the election. Of course, the country has not changed completely. The former government undermined the law and institutions with their own unconstitutional laws and now it is very hard to undo this. Especially as the country's president still comes from this conservative party [the far-right Law and Justice party, PiS]. He can't stand any attempt to change laws. [The democratic battle] has been won, but it's not easy to translate into reality.

On the other hand, although the atmosphere has changed, there are still 30-35% of the population who support this authoritarian populism, which has the appeal of nationalism and is often tinged with racism.

But the people who went to see the film were very moved and asked a lot of honest and important questions. And that's what we wanted to awaken: an awareness that we must face up to a situation that is happening not just in Poland, but across Europe.

Have the attacks on you calmed down?

Yes, and this government has no interest or authority in attacking me, even if it continues to do so in small ways. But we live in a divided world, and Polish society is very polarised, rather like American society. Populists have this talent for manipulating the human brain to the point where people start to follow them, like a cult. You see it with Trump and his supporters. In Poland it's not on the same level of course, and the country is on a different scale too, but the situation is comparable.

In any case we were a great success with the audience. I think that by asking these questions, and by showing the human beings who were depicted by the propaganda as paedophile terrorists, zoophiles, and weapons of Lukashenka, we managed to open up the debate, and also to awaken a kind of collective empathy.

Speaking of the change of regime, it's true that migration policy was particularly brutal in the Poland of PiS. Are you more optimistic now?

For the moment, we are not seeing any major changes. They have fired a few officials, including the most senior border guards who were the face of the brutality. But the policy is not changing, or not much. We are putting pressure on them, talking to them, and hearing that the push-backs are necessary but that they will be carried out humanely, which is an oxymoron.

But at least they're not lying, they're not saying awful things, they're not using Nazi and racist language. We can have a discussion with them, and we're going to keep up the pressure. Public opinion is more sensitive than it was a few months ago.

Is it that violence is necessary for the dehumanisation of refugees, an essential condition for the authorities to behave as they do?

Yes. First of all, I'm sensitive to the situation of migrants at our borders because I recognise the path that several countries have embarked upon. I made three films about the Shoah, about the years 1930-1940. I see how certain things have started to happen again. First, it's the selection: you decide who has the right to live, to be treated with dignity. Then you dehumanise them.

The Polish state propaganda was shameless. The interior minister held a press conference that became notorious – in Poland at any rate – where he said that [migrants] were not really people, that they were first and foremost Lukashenka's weapons, terrorists, rapists, paedophiles and zoophiles. The aim was really to create fear, and also to deprive these people of their voice and their individual destinies, to show them as a dangerous and repulsive mass.

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So, after all this repression, after these push-backs, after the brutality, the final stage is annihilation. That's what scares me. Because I hear the words of certain right-wing politicians, who talk openly about using weapons against refugees, both in Europe – in Italy, for example, or in the Netherlands – and in Texas.

So what should we do politically?

Above all, we should face up to the situation: analyse it, discuss it, look for the reasons, and also try to change people's minds. Not by frightening them, but by showing them positive images of reality. After all, Europe is shrinking, it is a continent that is disappearing demographically, it is ageing, and it needs new citizens.

Agnieszka Holland à Bruxelles en février 2024. | Photo: ©GpA
Agnieszka Holland in Brussels, February 2024. | Photo: ©GpA

But I think it's fundamentally a choice between comfort and values. If you look at the consequences of today's situation, you see that the logical next step is, for example, not just to push the boats back into the Mediterranean but to bomb them, and to create a kind of fortress where we shoot anyone who comes close enough to take away our comfort. And then that's the end of the Europe of democracy and human rights.

But some European citizens, who may be sensitive to the arguments of the far right without necessarily being fascists or neo-Nazis, are genuinely afraid of what refugees might bring.

Yes, of course. That's why I say that the choice is between comfort and values. Because we are very privileged in Europe, and we should share our comforts at such times as these. It's a form of extending rights. You know, 300 years ago, rights only belonged to rich, heterosexual, white men. But then we accepted that children also had rights, as did women, slaves, people of colour, homosexuals, and so on. We make progress, but there's always a backlash from those who have a monopoly on the law. And it's much the same with migration.

In any case, we have to avoid accepting the language of the far right and the fascists. I refuse to talk about migrants as anything other than human beings with their own lives, their own choices, their own needs – the same basic needs as ours. And it's our responsibility to share.

It was interesting to see how easily and enthusiastically the Poles opened their homes to Ukrainian refugees. Poland has welcomed more than a million newcomers, and nothing terrible has happened. The country has not become poorer, on the contrary, it has some economic benefits. People are also more generous. You know, people tend to be narcissistic. When they look in the mirror – unless they're a bit weird – they like to see beauty reflected back.

Green Border is a very tough, very brutal film. As you say, it's rather pessimistic about what Europe is today. But for you, what is Europe? Is it still a beautiful project that should be defended?

Absolutely, it's a beautiful project, one of the most beautiful projects of humanity. To let it fail would be a terrible waste. It would cost a lot of human lives, not just the lives of migrants, people from elsewhere, but also the lives of our white citizens. I'm rather pessimistic, because I think it's always much easier to cultivate evil than to cultivate good.

Here, the responsibility of the authorities, whether political or religious, is enormous. Today's world is so complicated and full of challenges that people are lost. Modernity is extremely complex and there are so many dangers. People are looking for someone to tell them "we have very simple answers to your complex questions, we know what to do". And these populists win because they provide exactly that answer. But even if you give it a different name, the reality doesn't change, it's still there.

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