Film critic Harlan Jacobson finds a gem at the 2023 TIFF
DD: Our film critic, Harlan Jacobson was deep in to the 48th Toronto International Film Festival, which he’s been attending for about two thirds of its lifespan, before he found a film that mesmerized him.
HJ: The Polish veteran director Agnieszka Holland’s The Green Border plants itself in a forest where Belarus meets her native Poland, and follows a small cast of disparate people from Afghanistan, Muslim North Africa and Syria used as political footballs in a torturous ground game run back and forth, over, under and through coils of razor wire that seem brighter, sharper, more silvery than the days when Poland signed on to Hitler’s Final Solution. In a near 50-year career, Holland has arrived at a film that I can say is more than masterful. The Green Border plays on turf almost equal to the greatest migrant story of all time, The Grapes of Wrath, John Ford’s 1940 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s chronicle of the great Dustbowl migration during the American collapse of the 1930s.
It began at the Venice Film Festival, which overlapped with Toronto and where it was thought to be a shoo-in as winner of the Golden Lion but instead finished as a runner up in the competition to Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things. (You can see both, by the way at the coming NY Film Festival which starts next week.) We pick up The Green Border’s characters’ journey, as they land from their failed states at the airport in Minsk and are assured they will cross over into free Europe at the welcoming Polish border and then go on to Sweden, or wherever they have dreamed they could spread out the contents of their lives condensed into a lone suitcase and breathe free air. The Green Border goes on to break their bodies and their hearts and the audience’s as well.
The story is framed and built in black and white by cinematographer Tomasz Nomiauk in a script by a team of writers (Maciej Pisuk, Gabriela Lazarkievicz Siezcko) including director Holland. As inured as I think I’ve become to the drumbeat of cable news’ cycle of horrors, neither The Green Border’s rather deftly drawn up characters seeking asylum in Europe, nor the audience have the armor to keep out Holland’s rain of tears. It finally settles on four African and two alabaster Polish teens finding their kid rhythm, the hip hop beat that implies freedom and a future. But to get to that point, the film perfectly thinks, moves, dares and demands more than empathy. It calls out for action by its audience at the Grapes of Wrath level.
That’s at the 140th minute or so of its 147, when the film seeps through all resistance, has forced you to say “I’ll be there,” like Tom Joad, “I'll be everywhere — wherever you look.” And then in an epilogue, it swerves and blunts its call to action. In a tack-on epilogue about how easy it is for Ukrainians to cross into Poland in 2022 following the Russian invasion – one Ukrainian young woman rushes a parrot in a cage past Polish customs officials and complains the bird is getting cold -- Holland wants to remind Europe that it is a racist state, or collection of states, and that the fate of the characters we’ve followed stems from that truth.
Only after the nearly 75 year-old Holland told the packed Scotia Bank theatre audience that the film was not quite finished, did I walk my unsolicited note up to Fred Bernstein, a producer on the film, as local Poles, first and foremost, milled about Holland hoping to connect to her. I wanted to connect to Bernstein, who nodded with instant recognition on hearing it: they’d gone back and forth about the epilogue. They had to have, it’s like swerving to hit a mailbox with a bat. Be that as it may, The Green Border is big and will play the coming NYFF Oct. 4, hopefully to find its way to open theatrically before year’s end.
Out of the slush pile at TIFF came a few films about authenticity that I also liked quite a bit:
While we were all locked in our bedrooms in the winter of 2021, so was one Keith Gill, aka Roaring Kitty, a small potatoes stock picker who from his suburban Boston basement Barcalounger sent out a Buy recommendation for GameStop, the company that was to videogames what Blockbuster was to video rentals, given up as road kill by Wall Street. I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie’s Dumb Money is a David v. Goliath business tale about how Gill, Roaring Kitty, ignited a monumental short squeeze by all the nurses in Pittsburgh, and all the little folks around the country, that wrung the juice out of all the hedge fund guys everyone loves to hate.
A fun cast with Paul Dano as Roaring Kitty, Pete Davidson as his slacker brother, America Ferrera as Jenny Gill his partner and wife and Vincent Donofrio and Seth Rogan as the baddie hedge fund guys. There’s a subcurrent of MAGA in the film, but we root for the little guys in a story ripped from just yesterday’s headlines. We live in complex times. Sony/Columbia releases the film back stateside this week.
And I’m HJ at the Toronto Film Festival