Its title may refer to an undeniably physical barrier but Tadhg O’Sullivan’s The Great Wall, the opening film at this year’s Open City Docs Festival in London, opts for a more transmutable definition of no more permeable boundaries. Kafka’s short story The Building of the Great Wall of China is the only narration, intermittently set to otherwise wordless images whose aim is clearly for atmosphere over information. The visuals are shorn of specific context but are not just intended as lyrical collage, but seek to provoke re-assessment of why we in Europe construct the walls of defence that we do and how these articulate the balance of power in society.
Where the lines between power and the lack of it are drawn is open to interpretation. O’Sullivan and his cinematographer Feargal Ward capture these man-made divides both in composition, montage, and choice of subject – most obviously apparent in frames dissected by a fence or barricade. However, a single focus-pull from a young girl who lives in a dusty makeshift encampment, to a group of men on a verdant golf course just hundreds of meters behind her serves to bring the message home with equal force. It may not feature an actual barrier (though there is one out of shot) but it travels back and forth across a chasm between the two situations which O’Sullivan wants to juxtapose to lay bare the truth. This not just a natural threshold between haves and have-nots, between egregious wealth and deplorable poverty, but one which we, as a culture, both build and maintain.
This also manifests itself as a cordon of riot police outside the Greek parliament to control protesters or a dizzying sojourn to London’s Canary Wharf. Here, the camerawork sweeps around far more readily than Ward’s usual stately pans, and prompts a totally appropriate queasiness at the monstrous glass and steel signifiers of unobtainable wealth towering overhead. What is interesting in The Great Wall is this somewhat unusual linking of these various concepts and institutions to the notion of borders and border control – that they are all fundamentally more or less subtle tools of protecting the status quo. With Kafka’s text read in the original German, his protagonist describes the wall he observes as “a defence against the people from the South”, which rings uncomfortably true in the current climate of toxic anti-immigration rhetoric.
Later, when that description is repeated, “We do not know about these Southerners; we have not seen them” is appended to challenge the rationale. There is also a wider observation about societal complicity in the building of walls, but these stand out as the more effective moments for a voiceover that never truly conveys the notions of timelessness and myth-making that it intends (particularly when compared to the similar employment of Dante in Liang Zhao’s Behemoth). Instead it threatens to dilute the impact of the far more potent images, and Steve Fanagan’s sound mix, that create The Great Wall’s stomach-churning atmosphere. It’s like fencing audiences in with mirrored walls and asking us to think about what we really see in them.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson