The Great Wall is a studied meditation on the nature of borders in the 21st Century. On one side we have the towering urban powerhouses of capital and on the other the wretched of the earth. Throw in a chilling soundtrack, stunning cinematics, a riff on Franz Kafka and you’ve a work that puts a dose of dystopian shits right up ya. Rashers Tierney had a tick for tack with the filmmaker Tadhg O’Sullivan about it all.
Filming for this project took place across 11 countries, yet the edges are blurred, it’s hard to distinguish where you are shooting. Like the power centres of Brussels and London just blend into each other, while one section of the wall is really seen as just a part of the whole. Yet we are always clear what side of the wall we are on. Was this purposeful and how hard was it to expunge giveaway local details from your visuals?
It was entirely intentional. Just as Kafka, in the story, uses a very general version of a mythologised China to frame his allegory, I wanted to take as my frame a very general view of Europe and show up certain truths that maybe aren’t apparent when one gets bogged down in specifics and details. Don’t get me wrong, specifics and details of particular countries’ power systems and laws are very important, but there are lots of other films and articles that deal with that – here I was after a broader truth. Taking my cue from Kafka, the conceit was to imagine what Europe might look like to, say, a Chinese historian in 500 years time: the European empire, as such, would be considered as a whole, with its centres of power, it’s edgelands, its walls, its laws. It wouldn’t be wrong to generalise in that way, and indeed certain bigger statements can be made looking through that prism – financial power is central; walls are built to keep ‘the people of the South’ out.
It wasn’t so difficult to expunge the details – once the visual style was established early on.
There’s a tension built into the movie, hugely assisted via the score, like we are moving towards a clash. Partially, on one side of the wall that’s the moment of demonstration and social strife in Greece and then there’s a perceived threat of violence from the impending “swarms” on the other side against the wall itself. Were you to don the futurist’s mantle for a moment, can I ask where do you think we are headed? Is the scenario bleak?
The scenario is dramatic I think, whether the inevitable clashes are bleak or hopeful is in the mind of the individual. There is an ever-more undeniable set of divisions, between inside and outside (with leaders openly talking about ’stemming the tide’, ‘swarms’); between the politics of exclusion and politics from below (for me this is a better frame than right and left) with events in Greece in the summer having been the first major stand-off there; between those who profit from investment and those who can only earn from work (but are often unable to do so). For many years these divisions were observable but denied by most – now they are explicit and the tensions across the divisions are growing. In ways I welcome the honesty that is emerging – the pretence that there wasn’t a class divide – ‘We are all middle class now’ – was a very clever way of stifling the waning power of the old working class, in the North Atlantic region particularly, as it was hard to unify and fight it you were told by society that you didn’t exist. I think we will see the re-emergence of new and interesting systems of organisation that move past the older profession-based unions and embrace more current forms of social organisation – this to me is hopeful.
I noticed some archive film was supplied by the Guardia Civil at Melillla. That’s a Spanish Mediterranean enclave that borders Morocco. Young men run at the fence in the hope of making it over. What happens if they do? Are they caught in a limbo? Did you make contact with with these migrants?
I spent a lot of time in Melilla, just hanging out at the open detention centre inside the fence where people who have entered the enclave, whether by jumping the fence or through the gates that lead to Morocco, are held. In that time I met a lot of the men – and it is mostly men – who have come to Europe over that fence. It really is a horrible thing, that fence: three metres high and three layers deep it is a convoluted system of barbed wire and mesh that is designed to ensnare anyone trying to get over it. On the Moroccan side the face that has to be climbed first has tiny ‘flechettes’ – upward-pointing spikes with barbs that are intended to rip the fingernails of those who climb.
The guys who attempt the jumps come from all over Africa – often West Africa – the journey may take years. They gravitate towards a forest above the border on the Moroccan side where they live in hiding for months, organising themselves into camps and planning their attempt. Nobody tries on their own – it is always an organised attempt, with the hope that sheer numbers will guarantee success for a few. Many try to make the crossing several times over months, if not years.
If someone makes it therefore it really is a triumph – the sheer joy for these guys at having made it to Europe is a sight to behold. What they often don’t know however, is that they are just beginning another journey through an equally complex bureaucratic system that starts with Melilla’s special status as a non-Schengen legal limbo. One cannot simply get on a ferry and go to Malaga – people may spend months there, eventually being moved to Madrid or Barcelona, where they will languish for another few years.
The entire system is designed to send a message back along the chains of communication, back along the migration routes, into the cities and towns of Somalia and Sierra Leone, to reach anyone thinking of making this desperate trek and to put them off. This is the bleakest aspect: the suffering of individuals is effected in order to express a message: you and your kind are not welcome.
The documentary unfurls almost like a meditation for the viewer on the subject matter. You chose a piece of text by Kafka to deliberate on. Was that piece of writing there from the start, underpinning your vision on the project?
No, I wanted to make a film about this subject and was looking for a way into it when I came across the Kafka story. I have always been interested in borders and the architecture of exclusion – power written into landscapes. It’s a pretty dry subject however and while there are lots of films that use interviews and analysis to explore intellectual ideas I wasn’t very interested in using that approach – for me cinema is suited to deeper truths, poetic truths – approaches that allow the viewer to meditate on a subject and find their own meaning. The Kafka text for me was the perfect way of opening up this approach – his work is entirely about deeper truths, come at from an unexpected angle, and – very importantly – timeless.
The documentary came out just as Calais was hitting the news and the mediterranean crisis looms large in the background. How has it been publically received? Have their been any reactions that have particularly ticked you off? Or do you just avoid the comments section online?
I’ve been quite happy with the reception – inevitably there will be reviewers and commentators that simply don’t get this type of film and will criticise it for not being something that it never tried to be. That’s ok, I don’t mind that. I think that the entire subject of migration and exclusion is being talked about a lot at the moment, in a way that hasn’t been the case before in the few years since I started into the subject. If I can add to that urgent debate in some way then I am very pleased.
Between your involvement in Silence, Living In A Coded Land and now this, I can see a similarity of tone across all the projects. What have been your biggest documentary making influences and how can that be seen on your work so far? What advice would you give to start up documentary makers?
It’s been a slow evolution but I guess a style emerges over time that reflects your own personality and sensibility. For me, the films and books and plays that I love are ones that create a world through atmosphere and a little bit of mystery, and carry you into that world, where then certain ideas are explored and you find yourself engaging with them. That’s what I aspire to – artists as diverse as Claire Denis, Beckett, Borges, Kafka, Apichatpong Weerasethakul have this amazing ability to carry me off into their work and get me thinking about really big ideas in there. That’s what I think art is for.
As for new documentary film-makers – I think it is really important to take ownership of your work. There is a myth around documentary that there exists some external truth and your job is simply to frame it. This is not true. The only truth is the truth of your relationship with your subject, whether that is a person, a place or an idea. There is no objectivity and don’t hide behind pretending that there is – you see the world differently to other people: show it to me.