The Great Wall is about walls and borders, old and new. The old one is the Great Wall of China, as described by Franz Kafka, in his short story Building The Great Wall of China, which was written in 1917, though not published until 1931. (Coincidentally, I happened to read it a few weeks before I heard of this film. Everyone seems to call it a short story, but it reads more like a philosophical essay to me. )
The short story’s nameless narrator is someone who worked on the wall himself, thouands of years ago; he muses about why it was built the way it was – in many unconnected pieces of 1,000 metres each, with great gaps in between. He declares that it was dysfunctional and the authorities must have known that, so they must have intended it to be dysfunctional. . .but again, why?
The film’s narrator, Nicola Creighton, reads excerpts from Kafka, in the original German, while we look at walls and very tall fences marking borders in Europe and North Africa. Those North African scenes were shot in Melilla, a small chunk of Morocco that Spain has held on to since 1497.
Because I had read the story recently, I caught a change that had been made to Kafka’s words. He wrote: “Against whom was the great wall to provide protection? Against the people of the north.” The film narration says “people of the south.” This north-south change occurs several times in the narration.
Walls and fences alone are not enough to keep the “others” out. There are watchers in the sky, in airplanes, surveillance cameras with night vision, and the kind of towers you see in films about prisons and concentration camps.
Often, it is not clear where we are in the world, though palm trees hint at a hot climate. Is that because one border often looks like another? Is it because some refugees/migrants don’t always know where they are, either? Should we think of it as a metaphor, more than anything?
Sometimes, the forces of law and order give us a clue: what does it say on the back of their uniforms? POLICE, POLIZEI or GUARDIA CIVIL? In Greece, their shields say POLICE, but there is another word writen in Greek alphabet.
Some scenes start in one country and end in another (far as I could tell). The Great Wall was shot in 11 countries; I did not recognize all of them. One city had a large, strange, ugly building. I want to learn the story of that. (As in, who are the guilty parties?)
There are scenes of huge skyscrapers in big cities, with pedestrians in suits walking around looking powerful and purposeful. My thought about that was, those buildings are another kind of wall or border, that will succeed in keeping strangers out. It’s likely that few migrants will be able to enter them, except perhaps as cleaners.
The music in the film gives an air of menace to many scenes. On the other hand, we often hear birds singing. My interpretation of that: birds are almost everywhere, they sing on good days and bad, they can go to any place that the wind and their wings will take them, unlike humans, they know no borders.
Coincidence: This was the second time this week that I have seen Maersk shipping lines onscreen. The other time was in a documentary about the “boat people” who fled Vietnam 40 years ago. Some of them were rescued by a Maersk ship.
At 72 minutes, The Great Wall felt a bit longer than it is. Some viewers might find their interest flagging toward the end. Or not. I’m not sorry that I went. There’s lots of food for thought in the film.
The Great Wall, 2015, from Ireland.
Director: Tadhg O’Sullivan
Camera: Feargal Ward
In German with English subtitles
The Great Wall is being shown as part of RIDM, Montreal’s Documentary film festival. See it at 8:30 pm, Friday, Nov. 18, at Cinéma du Parc, 3575 Ave du Parc. You can read more about it, and buy tickets on the RIDM web site. The trailer below looks very dark. Most of the scenes in the film are not like that.