Director: Tadhg O’Sullivan
Running Time: 74 minutes
Release Date: August 21st
Considering current events, The Great Wall‘s release is pretty excellent timing. As people die in the Mediterranean, camps grow at Calais and at home an underbelly of NIMBYism breeds in the discussion on how to deal with these issues, a movie that examines in a removed, distant and unsentimental way is most welcome.
The Great Wall gets its name and some of its themes from the Franz Kafka story, The Great Wall of China, in which Kafka imagined its construction through the mind of a worker. As it was erected, there was no beginning and no end, just 1,000 yard sections worked on, leaving the worker isolated and in contemplation of his goal and the unseen high command who had ordered it. Here, director Tadhg O’Sullivan makes a comparison between it and the walls we create to keep immigrants out of Europe, be they literal or bureaucratic. He opts to let the images tell the story, we never hear the story of its subjects, just watch them, the only dialogue coming in a voiceover reading passages of Kafka’s story in German — itself, drawing another connection to the history of segregation between East and West.
The photography is hypnotic, lingering around parts you wouldn’t expect. One scene hovers as a would-be immigrant is interviewed and fills out page after page. There’s not a word spoken in English as he goes through a gauntlet of signatures that reveals the banality of it all — people’s futures and safety reduced to forms and sign-heres. The constant image is walls, bridges, fences and gates, the interconnective tissue that keeps brings us together yet still divides us.
O’Sullivan along with his excellent director of photography Feargal Ward film in 11 different countries ranging from the financial districts of London and Brussels to civil unrest in Greece and Germany. The standout is in Melilla, a Spanish city in the north of Morocco that is a remnant of colonialism and now an important trade and military port for Spain. It’s become a target for immigrants looking to gain access to Europe without having to risk crossing the Mediterranean in a shipping container. Some swim or take boats into the harbour, some hide in compartments of cars crossing the border but most attempt to hop the massive fence. He haunts up and down this oppressive gateway, and spends time in a helicopter using night vision to spot would be jumpers, the pixelated black and white footage seems more like your watching a drone strike than an effort to uphold borders.
By not shooting at any recognisable (at least not at first) landmarks there’s a uniformity that suggests a blurring of where one country begins and another ends, making this a problem that’s not us and them, it’s everywhere. It’s a striking debut, rife with sombre and funereal moments — a man living alone in a derelict building, fastidiously tidying his quarters — to ones of injustice and farce — a refugee camp is set up on a dirt road, separated by a fence to an opulently green golf course. O’Sullivan, who has worked extensively as an editor with Pat Collins, has a strong visionary outlook and an ability to ask tough questions. We look forward to what comes next.