Oscar nominee Agnieszka Holland needed bodyguards following the “Green Border” backlash in her native Poland.
“I planned to be there during the election, so the Polish Filmmakers Association arranged bodyguards for me. I was traveling with two, both wonderful and very kind. But it’s quite costly, so I just rearranged my schedule,” she said at Ji.hlava Documentary Film Festival, answering Variety’s question during her masterclass.
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“I think I can be safe now, going back, but of course you never know if some crazy man won’t attack you on the street, believing you are the enemy of the nation.”
Criticized by rightwing politicians for her Venice-winning film about the refugee crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border, the acclaimed director decided to “limit her presence” in the country.
“It wasn’t just the Minister of Justice [who compared her film to ‘Nazi propaganda’]. It was the president, [Deputy Prime Minister] Mr. Kaczyński and others. It created a hysteria and I knew it was possible for me to be physically in danger.”
Ironically enough, such an “over-the-top attack and hate campaign” ended up helping the film they wanted to destroy, she suggested. So far, it has been seen by over 700,000 viewers.
“If it wasn’t for this ‘promotion’ by the government, it would never happen. When I was meeting with the audience, I felt I was taking part in some kind of group therapy. We all needed it.”
“Right now, our Minister of Education is a homophobe and a racist, but if schools will be allowed to see [the film], we might reach 1 million. I was afraid people would run away from it, but most realized that’s the truth and we have to do something about it.”
Talking about the Polish government’s “laboratory of cruelty and lies,” she recalled nightmarish events at the border.
“As soon as border guards and military units found these refugees, they put them on trucks and took them back to Belarus, where they were beaten and tortured, and raped. And then pushed back to Poland,” said Holland.
“I met a man who crossed the border 26 times. He said he felt like a ping pong ball. He was a walking corpse and I don’t think he will ever recover from this cruel and humiliating experience.”
At that time, reports about what was happening were still scarce.
“Mr. Kaczyński, who is still running Poland and will for another month and a half, once said that the Americans lost the Vietnam War because they let the media in. When the public saw what this war looked like, they didn’t want it. I also believe in the power of images. I thought: ‘If he is preventing people from seeing them, I will have to show it’.”
While recent election results left her “hopeful,” a “tough” transition from “the regime reminiscent of the communist era” is still ahead.
“With my friends and fellow filmmakers, I would like to discuss plans for the future of cultural politics in Poland. We have to figure out how to instigate a revolution and not allow for the corruption of our institutions,” she noted, teasing a return to Poland.
But she is also managing her hopes.
“Two days ago, I was told two more people were found dead at the border. One got caught in barbed wire. Now that the democratic opposition miraculously won, I just hope this legalized cruelty will finally stop.”
While making the film required going to direct sources – “We talked to border guards who felt they were doing something horrible” – and watching recorded testimonies that couldn’t be made public, Holland never wanted to make a documentary.
“We were thorough and honest, and we didn’t show anything that didn’t happen. The material is documentary, but the treatment is fiction,” she said.
“My closest friend was Kieślowski, who used to make wonderful documentaries. Then he started to feel he was being too intrusive. He had moral issues with that and I think I am the same. I can only play with the lives I have invented.”
She did make a documentary once, however, which sadly no longer exists.
“I made it at FAMU and it was very political. It was supposed to be transferred to negative, but then normalization started [the period following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia] and I had to steal it from the school. I hid it under my classmate’s bed, but he got scared and threw it away,” she admitted.
Despite a turbulent year, Holland isn’t planning her vacation just yet.
“After my Holocaust films, I always had to decompress: after ‘Europa Europa’ I made ‘The Secret Garden.’ My next is an unconventional biography of Franz Kafka, which is sometimes funny, but you wouldn’t call it a comedy. I haven’t managed to make one yet.”
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