Exclusion zone

Scene from "Exclusion Zone" by Agnieszka Holland


Commentary on Agnieszka Holland's film, showing in cinemas

What would Immanuel Kant, famous for the regularity of his walks in the balmy Königsberg on the Baltic Sea – cradle of German culture for centuries, bombed by the Allies and the Red Army in the Second World War – say to the pile of tension and violence portrayed in the poignant Exclusion zone, a film that Polish Agnieszka Holland directed in 2023?

Baptized Kaliningrad After the Soviet occupation, in honor of Mikhail Kalinin, president of the Supreme Soviet and hero of the revolution, the enclave where the philosopher lived is just a step away from the border between Poland and Belarus – the scene of dramatic comings and goings of migrants who passed through there. transit, which the film describes without half-images.

There is little room left for Kantian idealism – practically no one acts “according to principles that they consider would be beneficial if they were followed by all human beings”: dehumanization is the slogan, fueled by Belarusians and Poles who aim at Crossfire a variety of nationalities, Syrians, Moroccans, Afghans, sub-Saharan Africa, all refugees from instability and conflict. Anxiety mounts: border guards on both sides humiliate and expel passersby, in an endless spiral.

There are countless stories that Exclusion zone interconnects, in and around the border region between the two countries. The Syrian family fleeing from Assad and ISIS, the Afghan woman from the Taliban, Africans looking for work in the opulent European Union: on the Polish side, the Polish guard who fights against his conscience, idealistic volunteers concerned with alleviating travelers' pain and frustrations, and the psychologist who lives near the exclusion zone and is shocked by what she sees – she is the representative per se of the Kantian categorical imperative. The languages ​​spoken in this modern Babel overlap as the various characters come together.

It all started when, in 2021, Alexander Lukashenko, the dictatorial leader of Belarus, became radical: he “offered” safe passage through Belarus to migrants eager to land in the European “paradise”, crossing the forest area known as the “Green Border” and arriving in Poland. A flow of intermediaries of the most disparate caliber, corrupt or not, was immediately organized and began to exploit this desperate population. It was necessary to combine, of course, with the neighbor, at that time still governed by the PiS (Law and Justice Party) – of the root right and, therefore, hostile to the core towards foreigners passing through. “This is a hybrid war, they are human bullets from Putin and Lukashenko”, explains the commander of the Polish guard, speaking to the troops: “I don’t want dead bodies, if you see one, disappear with it”.

Filmed in black and white, Exclusion zone It goes through dense forests, trucks packed with perplexed people, barbed wires, deadly swamps – and oscillates sequences of distress with (false) calm. Bashir and his family, fugitives from Harasta (near Damascus), believed in an easy crossing to Sweden: they euphorically entered Poland, Europe in short, and were soon sent back to where they came from.

They end up trapped in the “exclusion zone” established by the Polish government, where rules and rights, in principle, do not apply – including to activists, who can be arrested simply for traveling within the area. If someone is injured, the ambulances must be accompanied by guards, who will accompany the injured back to Belarus after recovery.

Cinematographically, Poland and Belarus form the plan and counterplan of oppression. Launched into the highly polarized Polish political environment, on the eve of elections – which ended up ousting PiS from power – Exclusion zone aroused obvious and strong reactions. The then Minister of Justice, Zbigniew Ziobro, was the most vocal among the senior officials who spoke out: “In the Third Reich, the Germans produced propaganda films showing the Poles as bandits and murderers. Today they have Agnieszka Holland for that” - based not on the film, which he admitted not having seen, but on interviews with the director. He was forced to withdraw from the comparison by court decision. The border guard entity was categorical: “a scandalous and anti-Polish film… which glorifies the pathological phenomenon of illegal immigration”.

If the Belarusian route served as a lure for the astonished migrants, what came next went beyond that: in the first month of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than two million Ukrainians entered Poland. Around 9,5 million arrived during that year, 2022: the majority returned to their home country, others emigrated to third countries. The corridor opened by Lukashenko fell into disuse.

*João Lanari Bo He is a professor of cinema at the Faculty of Communication at the University of Brasília (UnB). Author, among other books, of Cinema for Russians, Cinema for Soviets (Time Bazaar) [https://amzn.to/45rHa9F]


Exclusion zone (Zelena granica)
Poland/USA/France/Czech Republic/Belgium/Germany/Turkey, 2023, 147 minutes.
Directed by: Agnieszka Holland.
Screenplay: Agnieszka Holland, Maciej Pisuk.
Cast: Jalal Altawil, Maja Ostaszewska, Behi Djanati Ataï.

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