MUBI is exclusively showing Tadhg O'Sullivan's The Great Wall (2015) from September 21 - October 21.
Many people told me in 2015 that The Great Wall was a timely film. Generally my response was that I had felt it to be a timely project when I had developed it several years previously; looking at it now, two years later, its timeliness seems not to have faded. While I would love for this not to be the case some day—for a time to come when films like this feel like they are from a distant era—I am not entirely optimistic about this. The central idea in the film, that walls of all kinds are everywhere erected to protect power and exclude the powerless, is itself a rather timeless one.
While developing and researching the film I had looked for some way to remove the specifics of time and place from the subject, to articulate in some way this timelessness that I felt was central to understanding the current moment: all too often we hear from those in power that the current moment is unique, unprecendented—that it requires a unique and unprecedented response. I felt that looking beyond this narrow view was important.
In Kafka's 'The Building of the Great Wall of China' I found a perfect lens for this subject. Here is Kafka—the master of imbuing the mundane 'now' with the eerie and uncanny in such a way as to make it strikingly unfamiliar—writing in 1915 about a mythologized 14th century China in order to explore the nature of time and power in his epoch. Kafka's poetic lens brought the deeper dynamics our present Europe into uncanny focus for me.
The text is narrated by an unnamed builder of the titular wall. A wise-seeming individual, our guide muses on the various paradoxes that surround the building project—what use is a wall, for instance, that is built in sections such that people can simply move through the gaps? Our narrator dismisses his own questions, however, in deference to the assumed wisdom of the rulers who have envisioned the building project: it is not for us to wonder such things.
Kafka is for me the most relevant writer of our time. His central concern is not the strangeness that is often associated with his name but rather power, and the human mechanisms from which power draws its strength. In his final novel The Castle we never meet the inhabitants of the eponymous building that looms above the village in which the book is set. The power that is exerted by the rulers above is expressed entirely by the willingness of the villagers to submit to that power. It is an imagined power, brought into being by submission to it. The same mechanism underpins the Great Wall of that short story: much of the text is deferential to the presumed wisdom of the ruling classes, but at the end the narrator begins to playfully question this presumed wisdom. He alludes to a decision to build the wall that predates the rulers, a decision that 'we, the builders of the wall' understand but remain silent about. Here I feel that Kafka is at his searing best: too often in our society, as in Kafka's, is the general public willing to ascribe intent and power to those above them—rulers, governments, systems of power. His ultimate insight is simultaneously pessimistic and optimistic: it is damnable that so many people allow power to act through submission to it, but at the same time change can perhaps be effected by refusing to allow it to act, by withdrawing the submission that underpins it.
I had first been drawn to making a film of this kind after spending time in Israel and Palestine—seeing there the use of architecture to control, to enclose, to exclude, to delineate power and powerlessness. At a certain point I realized that this would somehow be too easy—to bring a moralizing lens to a distant place that was not mine. Going deeper into the subject I began to realize that my own place—Europe—was built in much the same way. Crucially, given what Kafka has to say about where power comes from, I realized that while Israel's architecture has little to do with me, the systems of walls, of bureaucracy, of financial systems, of subtle exclusion that frame our European lives, were mine and in some small way of my making. This would be my subject.
Ultimately, The Great Wall is an attempt at a portrait of our Europe, of our walls. We know why they are built and in the end it is up to us to either maintain them or to dismantle them.