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New European film festival starts strong with notable Polish drama

A black and white image of a young girl, bundled up in a coat and hat, staring through a barbwire fence at an armed solider.
Agata Kubis
A scene from Green Border, a film directed by Agnieszka Holland which will make its West Coast premiere at the inaugural European Film Festival Seattle on Nov. 11, 2023.

Seattle has never lacked great film festivals, but more is always better when it comes to cinema you can’t experience anywhere else. That’s the case with the first annual European Film Festival Seattle which kicks off this week with a run of showings at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian.

Presented by the Society For Arts and screening various Polish films from Nov. 4 through 11, it is the passion project of local festival director Michal Friedrich who is no stranger to this emphasis.

“I started a Polish film festival in 1992 and it’s still going,” Friedrich recounted. “There are many festivals, probably every weekend there’s a festival, but bringing European films to Seattle is our mission. Having contacts in Europe (France, Denmark, Poland, Germany, etc), we can definitely find and fill a niche to enjoy European cinema.”

For this year’s first festival, six features are being shown in total:

  • Jan Kidawa-Błoński’s mystery The Secret of Little Rose
  • Kinga Dębska’s Feast of Fire
  • Pawel Chmielewski’s Hunting
  • Michał Waszyński’s The Great Way
  • Robert Gliński’s Strawman
  • And the West Coast premiere of Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border.

That last film particularly stands out, it recently won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. A drama about a family of Syrian refugees who make their way to the Polish-Belarusian border, it has also been met by a conservative backlash from the country’s leaders, despite most officials not seeing it.

“It was pretty much bashed by the Polish government,” Friedrich said.

For Holland, who was born in Poland but now lives in France where she sat down for a virtual interview, the government backlash merely reaffirmed that she was making a film that grappled with a critical issue.

“I had a lot of threats coming from the highest authorities,” Holland said. “But the reception to the film was incredible and I think it really touched people’s conscience and hearts.”

Though the director said she most wanted to show the film in Poland, she’s glad it will be screened in Seattle, as the subject of immigration and people’s humanity is a global issue that transcends borders.

“I wanted to translate it to the human dimension,” Holland said. “You know the situation on the U.S.-Mexican border and you know how easily we are sleeping today. I’m speaking about the rich ‘democratic’ countries, their response to the violence and a problem like that.”

Holland pointed to her past historical dramas about the dangers of hate, which include Korczak, Europa Europa, and In Darkness, as being closely tied to what she is now exploring with Green Border.

“Violent and hateful nationalism are very present in our societies, so I think that what a filmmaker or artist can do is to remind us of the human dimension and the consequences of such an approach, the idolatry that makes some people better than others,” Holland said. “It is always a straight road to some kind of fascism and we know the consequences.”

A man kneels, holding his hands behind his head next to a young girl wearing several coats and a backpack. They are looking up at a solider, whose hands, torso and legs are visible.
Agata Kubis
Jalal Altawil in Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border, a film about a family of Syrian refugees who make their way to the Polish-Belarusian border. The Polish drama will be screened Nov. 11, 2023, at the inaugural European Film Festival Seattle.

It is these situations that Holland says create a “laboratory of violence and lies” in countries everywhere.

“So far, any place it was shown in America, the reaction has been incredibly strong as well,” Holland said. “It was distributors who’ve been a bit afraid to buy the film because the film is too hard. But the people are not feeling that way even if they are moved and are crying and are concerned. The movie is not only entertainment, it is a description of the reality, I think, and we have to be gracious when describing the reality. Certainly, it’s not Barbie, but it is a film which is accessible and interesting.”

Holland spoke candidly about her film and the pressing issues it is taking on, using an expletive to refer to the laws that prevent people from helping immigrants. Yet she is also quick-witted and lighthearted when it comes to discussing her own career.

In recognition of her work directing many other acclaimed films over the past several decades, she is set to receive this year’s Career Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. However, the honor is not the first she’s gotten and is one she approaches with humor.

“The first time I got a lifetime achievement, I was under the impression I had to stop,” Holland joked. “But now I am in full speed. At one moment I will have to stop, but that is not there yet.”

In addition to her latest film, which Seattleites will soon be able to see, Holland has begun pre-production on another project. With no plans on slowing down, she said she “still has energy to do something new.”

Green Border shows as part of the European Film Festival on November 11 at 7:15 p.m. at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian. Tickets are $20 and are available for purchase through the festival website.

Chase Hutchinson is a freelance journalist and critic covering all things film from the vast world of horror cinema that continues to unsettle us to works of smaller independent cinema that challenge the art form itself. His work has appeared in outlets including The Boston Globe, The Inlander, The Seattle Times and The Stranger.