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'Green Border' is the strongest movie this critic has seen all year

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. "Green Border" is the new movie by the veteran director Agnieszka Holland. It tells the story of a refugee family trying to escape to Western Europe, and of the people who try to help and stop them. The film, which opens this week, won the special jury prize at the Venice Film Festival and stirred controversy in Holland's native Poland. Our critic at large John Powers says, It's the strongest movie he's seen all year.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Some topics are so distressing that it's easy to turn away and just not think about them. One is the world's seemingly endless refugee crisis. But when poor, often traumatized people cross into your country by the thousands or tens of thousands, averting your eyes isn't enough. You have to do something.

The complexity of doing anything lies at the heart of "Green Border," a new movie that packs a real emotional wallop. It's the crowning achievement of filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, the 75-year-old Polish emigrate who's built a long, varied career telling political stories about everything from the Holocaust and Soviet tyrany to the drug war streets of Baltimore on "The Wire." Holland has always had a laser eye for moral conflicts. And here, exploring the refugee situation in Eastern Europe, she shows how every choice exacts some sort of price.

We start in October 2021, with a Syrian family headed by a torture victim named Bashir, flying into Belarus, where they expect to cross the greenly forested border into Poland and then claim asylum in Sweden. But once they slip through the razor wire into Poland - we made it, they exult - they discover they've actually entered a nightmare from which the supposedly enlightened EU won't rescue them. Far from offering safe passage, the Polish authorities round them up and dump them back into thuggish Belarus, which then rounds them up and dumped them back into the Polish forest, over and over in a Kafkaesque cycle complete with beatings and robbery. Their story is powerful enough to carry a whole film. But Holland expands the canvas to include characters on the front lines of dealing with refugees from the Middle East and Africa.

We follow a rookie border guard, Jan, a nice guy with a wife and baby on the way, who's been trained to think he's protecting the homeland from terrorists and sex offenders who are being funneled into Poland by Vladimir Putin. We follow a crew of activists who assist refugees in the countryside, offering them food, water and medical attention. And finally, we follow Julia, a widowed therapist whose surprise encounter with an injured refugee starts her down a heroically risky path. Along the way, characters who we like die or do unlikable things, or in some cases, disappear into a patrol car and never return. A few almost randomly make it out of Poland.

For every generous soul like Leila, an Afghani English teacher who shares what she has with her fellow refugees, there's a racist border guard who charges desperately thirsty people 50 euros for a bottle of water and then after taking their money, pours it onto the ground before their eyes. Everyone is constantly making hard choices. For instance, the activists aid the refugees with food and medicine, which is allowed, but they refuse to help them elude the border guards even when they can. Such intervention would get the group banned from aiding any further refugees and could get them imprisoned for years. Each member of the group has a personal line that defines what they're willing to do or not do - and the lines change. Although the film has a political kick, one of Holland's virtues is her sense of reality. Her way of reminding us that even in extreme circumstances, ordinary life goes on. Refugee kids bicker like all other kids, even when the family's on the run. Julia may risk her career to help a wounded man, but she still needs to make that daily call to her desperately ill mother. And after Jan and the other border guards quit for the day, they drink hard to forget what they've been doing.

When "Green Border" premiered at festivals last fall, Holland was attacked by the Polish government, then run by the nativist, ultraconservative Law and Justice Party, which tended to treat any criticism of its policies as slander, if not treason. But their words weren't about to cow Holland, who cut her teeth on communism, emigrated west to make films more freely, and knows her way around bullying governments. Indeed, she ends her movie with a crushing kicker set at the Ukrainian border in 2022, an open-armed greeting that reveals the Polish government's selective treatment of refugees. You can feel the moral outrage pulsing beneath "Green Border," yet Holland is too shrewd a filmmaker to become preachy or sentimental. This is what's going on in your world, the film tells us. What do you want to do about it?

MOSLEY: John Powers reviewed the new movie "Green Border." On tomorrow's show, Diane von Furstenberg and filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. Chinoy directed a new Hulu documentary about Diane von Furstenberg's life, how she became a fashion designer and created the wrap dress, and the influence of her mother who survived the Holocaust. The documentary is called "Diane Von Furstenberg: Woman In Charge." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF RENAUD GARCIA-FONS' "BERIMBASS")

MOSLEY: To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Bigger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi, Joel Wolfram and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. With Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF RENAUD GARCIA-FONS' "BERIMBASS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.