Darragh McCabe moves across Tadhg O’ Sullivan’s documentary The Great Wall, which screened as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.
The Great Wall, Tadhg O’ Sullivan’s second documentary feature, is a series of vignettes depicting the literal and metaphorical walls that enclose Europe. The concrete-and-steel wall that’s rising around the Spanish Moroccan city of Melillia, for decades a chink in Europe’s armour, serves as a point of departure; from there the film examines other, less literal barricades, as well as their victims, from the City of London, to protesters in Greece during last year’s unrest, to a roadside camp in Bulgaria. There’s music, but no narration proper – the Franz Kafka short story, ‘The Building of the Great Wall Of China,’ read by Dr. Nicola Creighton, acts as aural counterpoint to the imagery. (Kafka’s story describes the building of the Great Wall as a sort of symbolic exercise undertaken for the purposes of self-definition.) The initial strangeness of this cinematic territory is eventually made familiar as certain conventions – the dynamic pairing of music to editing, the length and virtuosity of some of the shots – orient us. We’re in a land claimed by Chris Marker and previously visited by directors from Agnès Varda to Godfrey Reggio.
Without exposition or interviews, the film doesn’t form an explicit argument. O’Sullivan’s images can only be rhetorically effective if we’re already having the discussion he’s weighing in on, and he assumes that we are. But when the twin tyrannies of argument and narrative are overthrown, we go to great lengths to re-establish one or both and make safe again the broad avenues of explanation and exposition. For example, the music offers a sort of story; the progression from klezmer fiddle, the music of a people with a storied past of exile (and of Kafka’s own heritage), to Bach, to droning synths, might be a comment on the dangers of an approaching European monoculture. There are a few instances of written text; graffiti on the wall of a ruin just outside Melilla that serves as a way-station for African refugees – “think positive” “I will never stop my journey until I reach my home” – struggles uselessly against the bureaucratic injunctions on the wall of a border control office in Bulgaria. Looser signifiers abound, too. Footage of Greek riot police, lined up with shields raised, speaks the language of the headlines, and the camera swoops around the City’s cathedrals of capitalism in a stylistic parody of corporate advertising.
There’s a disconnect here. The Great Wall often looks like a work of anthropology. It obviously took a lot of time and effort for O’Sullivan and his cinematographer Feargal Ward to infiltrate some of these environments and to earn the trust of their subjects. Yet the footage is often so loaded, even disturbing, that to fail to comment could be seen as a cop-out. This is an old argument, one that it mightn’t even be worth having anymore, which is why I’m hedging my language. At the screening’s Q&A, one man asked O’Sullivan whether he thought he might have overestimated the parallels between Kafka’s text and the cumulative meaning of some the film’s more affecting imagery. Does modern Europe, he asked, really understand and identify with barbed wire, concrete and red tape, the way Kafka’s engineers understand and identify with their structure?
O’Sullivan’s answer was a qualified yes. Qualified because the questioner, in one sense, was pointing at the issue I’ve mentioned – that the narration, one of the techniques that transform what could have been a piece of reportage into an art film, might also manage to generalise out of existence whatever political statements the film is attempting to make. O’Sullivan bristled at this suggestion, insisting that we are culpable in the building of these walls around us. We’re terrified that a pistol shot from outside might crack the biodome that’s keeping us alive. Bare life absolutely isn’t just a feature of the faraway east or south; it’s evident in the arid lots that border our golf courses. There are some sequences, particularly those shot in Melilla and Bulgaria, where this is heartrendingly obvious.
The Great Wall engages with debates around documentary cinema’s form and political efficacy that have been around for decades. It’s a profound and chilling piece of filmmaking, but in order to take the film on its own terms you must accept a degree of culpability that will not be comfortable for most, and that may even be counter-productive. A cri-de-coeur in place of an accurate diagnosis, then, or a poem when what’s required is an independent report. Is it enough to simply pay attention to an unfolding atrocity? It might be. Another German-speaking writer, Berolt Brecht, closed his poem ‘Bad Time For Poetry’ with the following stanza:
Inside me contend
Delight at the apple tree in blossom
And horror at the house-painter’s speeches.
But only the second
Drives me to my desk.
The Great Wall screened on Monday, 23rd March 2015 at the IFI as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.