TIFF 2023 | Walls (Kasia Smutniak, Italy) — TIFF Docs

By Madeleine Wall

Splattered over the news and the internet, Poland’s migrant crisis has been making headlines for years. In response, aggressive security measures have been installed, including building a 186-kilometer steel and barbed wire wall along the Belarus border to keep them out. Navigating more than one boundary, Kasia Smutniak’s documentary Walls is a first person look at the people who have built these structures, and those who try to elude them.

Set over the course of a single week, Smutniak’s film focuses on a group of local activists helping migrants escape detection. There have been reports of abuse and rejection for those seeking asylum, primarily from the Middle East, when they’re captured by the military police, so a secondary network has been created. These activists, who are all young and appear in varying degrees of anonymity, bring Smutniak into their world, and things quickly move from the realm of documentary to thriller. 

Smutniak’s impetus was to go beyond the images on her phone, beyond the news stories that play out on the TV at her local restaurant; on some level, the film is about what can and cannot appear on camera. Though her subjects ultimately fail to connect with any refugees, Smutniak makes something  out of this structuring absence. She blurs the faces of policemen; long conversations happen while the camera is tucked away from their view, filming the car dashboard. The increased surveillance and police presence has shaped the landscape of Europe’s oldest forest, and Smutniak and the activists trek and hide through the woods, following the path of the people they’re trying to help, a trail of abandoned supplies whose owners have fled in the middle of the night.

Walls is a homecoming for Smutniak, who normally lives in Italy, and she also turns her camera on her fellow Poles, including her own family. The group chats and bags of shoes of the activists pale in comparison as spectacle to the construction of the wall; at one point, the official guide proudly shows  off a water cannon, only just noticing Smutniak’s barely repressed distaste. Smutniak must also wrestle with her family’s attitudes, with parents who approve of the wall, and with her grandmother’s indifference to Poland’s WWII legacy, her apartment looking out over what used to be Łódź’s Jewish ghetto. 

An escape film about trying to get in, Walls is a thriller about the hypocrisy of Europe, and by focusing on the work of a few, Smutniak reveals how little has changed.