Director Agnieszka Holland has been forced to take 24-hour security protection as she returns to her native Poland for the theatrical release of migrant drama Green Border on Friday (September 22) in the face of a fierce political backlash and online hate campaign.

“The situation is very dynamic and keeps changing. I’m trying to keep a sane mind but it’s dangerous. This campaign could provoke real violence, not only verbal violence. It only takes one deranged person to take it seriously,” Holland told Deadline as she travelled to a pre-screening event on Thursday.

Green Border tackles the migrant crisis along Poland’s thickly forested border with Belarus, which Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko is widely accused of engineering by encouraging people to travel to his country on the promise they can easily cross over to Poland and the European Union.

The film has touched a raw nerve with Poland’s ruling right-wing, anti-immigrant coalition government, led by the Law and Justice (PiS) party, for its scenes showing Polish border guards pushing exhausted, bewildered migrants back over the border into Belarus.

Green Border acknowledges the roots of the crisis but asks tough questions about a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment and loss of humanity, not just in Poland but across the whole of Europe.

Holland said that parties connected to the government had “stolen” a print of the film and then created news packages highlighting only the scenes showing border guard violence, when the picture covers the issue from a number of different angles.

“It actually very nuanced,” she said of the film. “It shows one or two acts of sadistic behaviour, but the rest is regular people who are trapped in some type of moral limbo. It also shows great Polish people who are saving people lives without regard for their color and the risks they are taking.”

“They [the government] are guilty and they want to hide it and they want to use it for electoral means,” she added, referring to upcoming national elections on October 15 in which the Law and Justice party is hoping to win a third term in office.

Films organisations across Europe and North America have spoken out in support of Holland with the DGA being the latest body to issue a statement on Thursday, decrying the government attacks.

“We firmly believe directors like Agnieszka have a vital role to play in fostering discussion and reflecting societal problems through their work. We echo the statements by the Federation of European Screen Directors (FERA) and the European Film Academy in support of Agnieszka and her Venice Film Festival award-winning film and will continue to support the free speech rights of all directors,” said the body.

Warsaw-born Holland, 74, is no stranger to political backlashes having been forced to leave Poland in the early 1980s when her politically engaged work put her on the wrong side of the then Communist government.

“I have lived a long life and I have been attacked by several regimes, but nothing is comparable to this. They are comparing me, the film to Nazi propaganda, Leni Riefenstahl, to Hitler, to Stalin,” she said.

Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro (leader of the PiS-aligned Sovereign Poland party) kicked off the attacks during Venice, saying the film was tantamount to a Nazi Germany propaganda film “showing Poles as bandits and murderers”.

Other political figures have accused Holland of being in league with Russia and Belarus, suggesting that both countries were using the film to discredit Poland.

President Andrzej Duda further enflamed the situation in a televized interview on Wednesday (September 20) when he endorsed reports that border guard officers had used the slogan “only pigs sit in the cinema” to refer to potential spectators of the film.

The slogan dates back to World War Two when it was used to refer to people who frequented cinemas during the Nazi occupation.

“I’m not surprised that the border guards who saw this film used the slogan “only pigs sit in the cinema”, known to us from the times of the Nazi occupation, when Nazi propaganda films were shown in our cinemas,” said the president.

He said it was a shame the film had been made and that it was an insult to the country’s border forces.

“I read that it shows them almost as sadists. These are people who do their duty; who perform tasks; who guard the border of the Republic of Poland and the security of Poles,” he continued.

Undersecretary of State Błażej Poboży announced on Thursday that cinemas showing the Green Border would be obliged to run a short film promoting the work of the country’s border forces prior to screenings.

“I have no idea how they envisage putting this in motion. The film is playing in arthouse cinemas, not multiplexes. There are cinemas owned by the municipalities, but most are not. I don’t know how they will do it, frankly, and if the film will even play, I’m not sure it will play out in the way they want.”

While Poland’s mainly government-controlled media gives the impression that much of the country is against Holland and her film, the director suggests this is not the case.

“We had the premiere of the film yesterday to which many people came… the cast and the crew as well as a lot of people from the industry. There was not only a lot of support, but they were also shaken by the film. We can see that this is more than a film, it speaks to people’s conscience,” said Holland.

“That is one side that gives me a lot of satisfaction because it’s difficult to make a film today which really means something to people. On the other side, it has provoked an unprecedented hate campaign coming from the highest places in Polish government – the president, the prime minister, several ministers, the military forces and their propagandists.”

There have been reports in the Polish media that neo-fascist groups are planning to disrupt screenings of the film.

Holland said she hoped that this would not happen but that she would not be surprised if it did. “The country is divided. The government has been feeding this polarization for the last eight years, maybe longer. It’s very easy to find these neo-fascists.”

Holland believes that many of the politicians attacking the film have not seen the entire work, adding that if they had, they would understand that it was nuanced in the way it explores the issue of migration.

“I don’t think many of them want to see them film. It would be interesting to watch them watching the film,” she said. ”

In the backdrop, another question hanging over the film is whether the political backlash will result in it being excluded as a viable contender to be Poland’s submission for the Best International Feature Film at the 96th Academy Awards.

The deliberation process overseen by the Polish Film Institute is currently underway with an announcement on the selected candidate due on Monday (September 25).

The film’s Venice Special Jury Prize win and its strong reviews out of that festival and Toronto would make it a worthy candidate.

Holland says she has faith in the PFI selection committee to act in an unbiased manner but suggests the selection of her film would not get past the government.

“The committee is made up of competent film professionals who are honest people, but their selection has to be signed off by the minister of culture. If it were normal times, under a normal government, why not? Our film is one of the best received and already has quite wide fame, but I doubt it would get it through now,” she said.

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