In Polish actor-turned-filmmaker Kasia Smutniak’s documentary “Walls,” she undertakes an uncertain and risky journey into the red zone — a dangerous strip of land in Poland that runs parallel to the Belarus border. Crossing the long border is a 115-mile steel barricade built to repel migrants from entering the European Union in search of refuge.
Inside the red zone is Poland’s dense Białowieża Forest, known for its swamps, wolf packs, and desperate migrants trapped in political limbo. In “Walls,” which premeired on Sept. 10 at TIFF, Smutniak interviews red zone survivors and activists who describe being beaten and robbed by border guards, mutilated by animals, and barred from claiming asylum.
Poland’s red zone is also the topic of Agnieszka Holland’s “The Green Border,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month. On September 4, Poland’s hard-right justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro compared the refugee drama to Nazi propaganda. “The Green Border” is also screening at TIFF.
Variety spoke with Smutniak, who resides in Italy, about “Walls,” which screens at TIFF on Sept. 12. She is seeking a distributor for the documentary.
What made you want to make “Walls”?
I wanted to get the story (about the red zone) out there. I thought, as a regular citizen, what can I do? I could move to the red zone like many people do and start to run in the forest with a backpack, trying to save lives. But I knew that I wasn’t strong enough and I didn’t have the tools. But then I thought, actually, I have one tool, which is really powerful, which is a storytelling and making films.
You put yourself on the frontlines and get incredible access during precarious situations. What was that like?
For maybe the first time in my life, being a woman and being an actress helped me because I had the feeling that I was totally underestimated and kind of invisible with my intentions. People thought that whatever I was doing there, whatever I was shooting, it was nothing to be worried about.
How do you feel about “The Green Border”?
It’s so powerful because it’s based on true stories, which I know very well. Agnieszka’s reason for making her movie was the same as mine. It’s an act of rebellion. It’s doing what we, what we can do. And it’s incredible that this story about that border is so big right now. Agnieszka’s movie is a drama, and my movie is a documentary, so they are told from different points of view, but if you watch her movie and my documentary, they are very complementary.
What are you hoping audiences talk about after watching this documentary?
Every day, we make choices. We can not take these choices for granted. We need to determine what side of the story we want to be on.
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