Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland
The Great Wall (Tadhg O’Sullivan 2015)
According to the UN Refugee Agency, the year 2015 marked the record number of migrants and refugees across the world, particularly in the EU. Since April, when five boats carrying almost two thousand emigrants to Europe sank in the Mediterranean Sea, the phrases “European migrant crisis” and “European refugee crisis” have become the commonly used in the media. Issues concerning ways of coping with this influx now incessantly preoccupy the EU Parliament. Measures proposed to be taken have varied. The precaution introduced in Hungary, euphemistically called the “Great Wall’, has given rise to much bitter controversy. This protective measure, however, Tadhg O’Sullivan’s eponymous feature documentary informs us, is neither an isolated nor the least problematic one implemented by the EU. However, instead of criticising specific governments and particular barriers, The Great Wall explores political geography, articulation of power and the motives of those responsible for making decisions about borders of inclusion and exclusion.
O’Sullivan’s The Great Wall is a conceptual and at times rather abstract artistic treatment of the abovementioned issues. It strongly resembles essayistic film work by the late French director and multimedia artist Chris Marker. Therefore, it might be more apposite to call The Great Wall an essayistic film rather than a documentary, particularly as the work does not follow linear narrative style. Indeed, organizing his contemplation thematically as well as structurally is O’Sullivan’s appropriation of Franz Kafka’s short story “The Great Wall of China”.1 Despite the different media and the different periods, Kafka’s poetic exploration of leadership’s competence to make decisions, including those about national protection, complements O’Sullivan’s project well. This is due to timelessness of the major topics the works examine. Both works scrutinize the ideological construction of otherness. Both also bring out fundamental patterns of human behaviour one adopts in relation to “the other”. O’Sullivan seeks for the audience to engage in a dialogue on those topics, which is apparent from the specific work of camera throughout the film. The images presented are thematically related yet random and their sequencing might seem incoherent to some. The Great Wall, nevertheless, does not turn into a tangential mess due to careful direction and editing. The overall outcome becomes a social critique with taut, kinetic progression towards a synthesising message, the urgency of which is enhanced by the accompanying soundtrack and O’Sullivan’s masterful sound design for which he is well known.
In its lyrical, visual elaboration of “the other” question, The Great Wall draws the viewer’s attention to the liminal states that tend to be the EU buffer zones aimed at preventing the influx of illegal immigrants. It manifests how one’s desire for stability affects the way people treat the unknown, and hence potentially threatening, “other” – they build barriers, visible as well as invisible. Barriers that grow with the increasing level of fear “the other” instil. The fact that this fear of “the other” might be informed by the aforementioned desire for stability rather than substantiated is alluded to by Kafka’s aphorism which opens the film: “A cage went in search of a bird”. The cage, a parable for the walls, is a man-made object. The implied focus is on those who argue that to fear “the other” is justifiable even though there might not be any proof for such a claim and demand for the walls to be built. This behaviour fuels fear society. Consequently, The Great Wall inspires the viewer to question ambivalence that is central to stereotypes. It was such ambivalence, a scene depicting the old fortress in the Spanish city of Melilla in mainland Africa suggests, which gave colonial discourse its currency. This ambivalence also ensured that deterrent structures have a long and challenging tradition in European history. Indeed, it contributed to repeatability of stereotypes in changing historical conditions as the new Melilla border barrier constructed to stop illegal immigration to the EU is not that far from the old colonial fortifications. The ambivalence typical of stereotypes is in contrast to the ambiguity of O’Sullivan’s work itself. The documentary avoids showing any recognizable landmarks, yet the scenes it depicts seem only too familiar to the audience. This artistic choice and O’Sullivan’s image framing help to create the feeling of a universal mise-en-scène which further underlines universality of the discussed issues.
In its questioning of ambivalence as the strategy of discriminatory power, The Great Wall mirrors Bhabhian analysis as it challenges the positions on the meaning of exclusion and oppression. However, The Great Wall challenges the motives behind the construction of alleged protective walls even further. Through its use of visual imagery combined with the excerpts from Kafka’s story, the documentary averts to the negative impact of globalism. Shots of fleeing refugees and migrants trying to cross barriers are contrasted with those of businessmen in expensive suits on the streets of the bastions of EU commerce and control, such as London. This issue is, similarly to the other ones the documentary discusses, linked to colonial misuse of power and resultant supremacy via shots of the fortress in Melilla and the exposition of colonial acquisitions it houses. While the documentary also hints at the role ordinary people play in capitalism, O’Sullivan’s examination of the electorate’s responsibility concerning the actions the EU leadership takes in its name seems more poignant. The Great Wall invites the audience to ponder its own agency. It raises the question whether people should think for themselves, challenge their leadership’s conduct and if so to what extent. In other words, the film asks whether people, to use a parable from Kafka’s story, should become rivers which burst their banks.
O’Sullivan’s The Great Wall constitutes an invaluable contribution to the discussion of current affairs. It is thus fortunate that the filmmaker received support from the Arts Council’s Reel Art scheme. Yet, it is necessary to say that even though O’Sullivan is passionate about the subject; his film prefers to convey its message in a visually and poetically artful manner rather than as polemic. Although the voice over of excerpts from Kafka’s work (narrated in the original language of the story with accompanying English subtitles) and the captivating soundtrack might condition the way the audience perceives the visual imagery, this conduct is not as intrusive as direct address applied in documentaries can often be. The Great Wall is no propagandistic manifesto but the audience might nevertheless feel compelled to ponder its themes and to take a stand. The decision to do so, however, is their own, as are the consequences.
- “The Great Wall of China” is a short story written by Franz Kafka in 1917. It was not published until 1931, seven years after his death when Max Brod selected stories and published them in the collection Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer. [↩]