Can the unique language of cinema offer us a different perspective on migration?

Can the unique language of cinema offer us a different perspective on migration?

Pedestrians pass in front of a historic cinema in the centre of Tunisia’s capital, Tunis. In 2023, the country was the main departure point for migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

(Ricard González)

The subject of migration, sometimes described as a ‘crisis’ or ‘challenge,’ occupies a prominent place in the political discourse of practically every country in the European Union. While an estimated 28,000 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea since 2014, and NGOs continue to sound the alarm on the myriad of abuses that migrants suffer at EU land borders, the far-right, propelled by its criticism of immigration, has continued to grow in several countries. But while incendiary discourse rages in politics and media, cinema, on the other hand, has been able to reflect on migration in a more nuanced and humane way. One such example is Green Border by veteran filmmaker Agnieszka Holland. The film, which won the Special Jury Prize at the the most recent Venice Film Festival, has also sparked intense and polarised reactions in Holland’s native country of Poland.

According to Holland, the recognition that she received from the international jury has cost her dearly: “I have suffered waves of aggressive attacks from [ultra-conservative leader Jarosław] Kaczyński’s party and supporters”. Although she was imprisoned as a dissident during the Prague Spring, Holland claims that the worst attacks she has yet endured are those she is “receiving today, from a democratically elected government”. Taken from a recent interview published by the Spanish newspaper El País, Holland’s statements refer to the far-right Law and Justice (PiS by its Polish acronym) party that has governed Poland for the last eight years. Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro even went so far as to compare the film to Nazi propaganda for “showing Poles as bandits and murderers”. In response, Holland, 75, filed a lawsuit against the minister.

Shot in black and white, the film recounts the plight of a Syrian family seeking political asylum who suffer cruel abuse at the hands of Polish border police as they attempt to enter the EU. Green Border is inspired by real events, as thousands of people were trapped on the EU’s eastern border in 2021 under harsh conditions after Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko threatened to “flood” the 27-nation bloc with “drugs and migrants” for imposing a sanctions regime on him.

The film was released at a delicate moment in Polish politics, just three weeks before a general election in which PiS would lose its absolute majority to a three-party opposition alliance led by the former Polish prime minister and president of the European Council Donald Tusk. The far-right party made its hostility to the reception of migrants one of the central themes of its electoral campaign.

“The movie is very realistic. It is based on deep research, talking with all the actors involved. It even recreates some scenes that had appeared as pictures in the press. It is fiction, but it tells situations that happened or may have happened,” explains Marysia Złonkiewicz, an activist with Grupa Granica, one of the main NGOs assisting migrants on the Belarusian border. More than three decades after the fall of communism, Green Border has reaffirmed the impact that cinema can have on the political discourse in Poland. “The film created a big interest, especially because of the political context. More than a million people saw it. Going to the cinema became a political gesture, a show of support for the director who had been attacked,” adds Złonkiewicz.

From figures to stories and their protagonists

Given the centrality of migration in public debate, are fiction and documentary filmmaking tackling the issue head on or avoiding it? “I think there are several films that deal with the issue and there are even two good festivals dedicated to it, one in London and another in Amsterdam. The problem is that these works don’t usually reach a big audience,” says Stefanie Van de Peer, professor of film and media at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, who cites Flee, On Our Doorstep and The Swimmers among the most notable recent works. Van de Peer believes that migration has been a regular theme throughout the history of cinema, as there have always been population movements across borders. “It is not true that there is a ‘refugee crisis’. There have always been refugees,” she adds.

Marc Almódovar, a Catalan documentary filmmaker with an interest in social issues, similarly believes that there is no lack of films on the subject but rather a lack of different approaches. “Many works have the same perspective, there is little variety. The drama of migrants is dealt with a lot, sometimes with the hackneyed ‘white saviour’ formula, but the focus is rarely on the reasons for migration. The commercial aim is to hook spectators rather than make them reflect,” says Almódovar. While he would like to see more political works, like those of director Costa-Gavras, he rejects the label ‘political cinema’: “Everything is political, including the decision to ignore the roots of the problems.”

According to Leila Nachawati, a Spanish-Syrian writer and researcher specialising in racism, the approach that some films take to migration differs from that of the media, which dominates public debate: “Many media outlets feed political polarisation by depicting migrants as criminals. They typically portray the ‘other’ as a threat, and this contributes to fear and dehumanization.” Nachawati says that numerous studies show a direct link between the way the media portrays foreigners and the kind of treatment they receive from their host societies.

Thanks to its success, Green Border has had a major impact on political debate in Poland. “When people talk about the situation at the border [with Belarus], it is very common to refer to Green Border or some of its scenes. The effect on public opinion is clear, it has generated more empathy,” says Złonkiewicz. However, as Nachawati points out, cinema has also participated in the construction of the threatening ‘other,’ as depicted in the 2006 documentary film Reel Bad Arabs, which recounts Hollywood’s orientalist depiction of Arabs.

The language of cinema may be particularly well suited to generating empathy in society towards people who are forced to flee their homes. “In the media, migrants are usually treated as number or statistics. Cinema, on the other hand, allows their personal stories to be told. It gives a voice to individuals,” says Van de Peer. “The visual treatment is also different. Normally, in the media, there are aerial images, taken from far away. In the cinema, the point of view descends to the level of migrants, you can use close-ups, for example. These tools generate a more emotional reaction that can lead to a sense of solidarity,” she adds.

The harsh depictions of violence in films such as Green Border have provoked debate amongst some activists. “In some cases, and I’m not talking about Holland’s film, because I haven’t seen it, the abuse of violent images ends up desensitising the viewer and can be counterproductive,” says Almódovar, who worries that such “pornographic” depictions of violence against racialised people could normalise it. “In some films, migrants are treated as victims, as passive cinematic objects, not as subjects. And that is a problem. In reality the opposite is true: they have made more conscious and far-reaching decisions about their destiny than most of us have,” he concludes.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Brandon Johnson