For her debut film, actor turned filmmaker Kasia Smutniak travels to Poland’s forbidden red zone to shine a light on her home country’s border policies and the European Union’s refugee crisis.
In childhood, Kasia Smutniak played below her grandmother’s window, overlooking the walls of what half a century prior was Łódź’s infamous Jewish Ghetto. The actor left her native land as a young girl but often returned home and maintained close connections to her birthplace.
On one such peregrination in adulthood, she was met with the reality of a different wall: crossing the 416 kilometre–long border with Belarus was a 186-kilometre steel barricade, built to repel migrants — mostly from the Middle East — attempting to enter the European Union in search of refuge. For her directorial debut, Smutniak travels to the so-called red zone, a forbidden area of eastern Poland inside the Białowieża Forest — Europe’s oldest and densest, known to be teeming with swamps and wolf packs — where desperate migrants are trapped in political limbo. There, according to survivors and activists, they are beaten and robbed by border guards, bitten by animals, and barred from claiming asylum.
In Poland, the topic of migration is an urgent and defining political issue. Smutniak’s film harnesses the pacing of a thriller to reveal that some walls are invisible, insurmountable, and built to arbitrarily divide humans into those worthy of sympathy and those who aren’t. These barriers can be forests, barbed wire, or policies that for some — as is the case for Ukrainian refugees at the border just 200 kilometres south of the same forest where less-welcomed asylum-seekers are being hunted down — become open doors. Smutniak’s brave investigation is a jarring yet accessible contemplation on the hypocrisy of modern Europe.
Official Selection, 2023 Toronto International Film Festival