Manon Girault talks to Tadhg O’Sullivan about his documentary The Great Wall, turning the camera onto European power, and the search for timeless truths.
Tadhg O’Sullivan is an Irish engineer turned self-taught documentary filmmaker. Based in Carlow, Ireland, but currently working on his latest feature in Berlin, we wanted to catch Tadhg and chat about his documentary film, The Great Wall (2015), a project based on the Kafka short story At The Building of the Great Wall of China (1917).
Supported by the Irish Film Board, The Arts Council of Ireland, and screened at FiD Marseille, MoMA Doc Fortnight, and RIDM Montreal, O’Sullivan’s uncannily atmospheric project focuses on all that ties today’s Europe and its manifested borders, serving as a profound question on the nature of contemporary power. His films are often poetic in nature and play with the inner frames of architecture and Edward Hopper-like portraiture.
The composed, discreet, and humble O’Sullivan kindly accepted to meet us in Berlin on the terrace of Prenzlauer Berg’s iconic, floral Cafe Anna Blume for an afternoon drink, where we talked about the influence of Franz Kafka, Europe today, and truth in documentary cinema.
electric ghost: What came first, the desire to visually translate Kafka’s short story or the wish to focus on today’s border issues?
Tadhg O’Sullivan: I think I was interested in borders first. I have long wanted to investigate the relationship between architecture, politics, and power as well as the built environment, the way people are guided around a city, as a political and ideological gesture. If you are able to explore this subject from a more basic starting point, if you are able to make a film about the humanity that is on your doorstep, then it is worth you venturing out to grasp a more extreme version of that particular topic.
This was my case after coming back from Palestine. The more I read the literature around the border subject, the more I realised that while Israel might be at the cutting edge of what it is architecturally, Europe does exactly the same thing but in a subtler way. With that in mind, I realised that it was indeed too easy for me to moralise about what Israel does, without having turned the lens onto my own political world—onto Europe.
Growing up, I had read a lot of Kafka but came across The Great Wall of China again whilst doing research for this particular documentary. Using a Kafka short story as the backdrop of a documentary, to explore the matter of borders by referring to his texts seemed quite obvious. But after googling it, no one had seem to have done. So I had one of those lightbulb moments where I thought that this was ideal, that this way the perfect poetic way to dive into a subject. There all these interesting academic insights around how architecture and politics and power meet, but I wanted to make a film that does not explicitly say didactic things. For me, filmmaking revolves around the combination of two elements—be it sound and picture, narrative and picture, picture and picture—that are not meant to do the same work on screen but, that are meant to create an overall poetic meaning. The Great Wall focuses on the tension between narrative and picture and should allow the spectator to come up with his or her own other meaning that should not revealed on screen.
How did you decide to adapt Kafka’s The Great Wall to make it contemporary?
Tadhg O’Sullivan Kafka’s story, written in 1915, is about a mythologised history from fifteen hundred years ago. The intertemporal aspect is what was most interesting to me because of its tie to the whole interrelated border, migration and movement discourse. Taking a step back from this situation allows you to realise that you are dealing with a dichotomy of power – on one side, power within Europe and that on the other, powerlessness outside of Europe. This desire, to maintain that power structure, is indeed as old as the Great Wall of China and as any two human communities that have come into conflict across a power divide. I wanted to draw out of this political situation and of the Kafka story the idea of timelessness and the illuminating dichotomy.
I came across Marguerite Duras’s Les Mains Negatives by accident at a film festival in Marseille, whilst I was shooting The Great Wall. It is a phenomenal short film shot on 16 MM, from a moving car that drives around Paris. The visuals are beautiful but they do not have as much meaning in it of themselves. However, Duras makes use of the voice-over to talk about the discovery and the phenomenon of cave-paintings in her own personal, poetic way. By doing so, she allows viewers draw this layer of meaning out of the on-screen Parisian streets. The film simultaneously reflects upon how ancient humanity is but also, upon how the humanity that you are looking at today—the street sweepers, the people getting into their cars at dawn – are fleeting, that life itself is fleeting. Les Mains Negatives is also deeply meaningful and optimistic in that humanity is almost timeless.
“Once you are within that world, certain insights and truths are given to you. It is almost like being in a dream state.”
Anything in particular that you wanted the public to grasp from this example of intermediality?
Fergel, my cinematographer, is remarkable, with whom I have constantly worked over the years. He was the one who came up with the idea of shooting the film with a very wide anamorphic lens to embody “The Wall.” Indeed, the film’s form, the cinematic image, should unconsciously evoke the subject, the wall in it of itself, so that form and meaning are intertwined in a very interesting way. If you were to shoot that same film with a normal kind of width, the horizontal lines, brought out, by the wide lens might be there but you would not even notice them.
I have noticed how the merging of certain lights and angles lines create this other conceptual border, omnipresent throughout the film. How spontaneous were you during the filming of this project? Did you have any particular images, angles that came to your mind beforehand?
I think atmosphere is the word that I always come back to. Atmosphere, like what Apichatpong focuses on, is about being immersed into this other not described, but evoked world. I think that all great art attempts to do so. And once you are within that world, certain insights and truths are given to you. It is almost like being in a dream state. What I was trying to do with The Great Wall was to evoke a slightly uncanny atmosphere. Indeed, Kafka’s stories do not make sense but they are also not meant to. He goes beyond that. even within the non-sense making, the stories do not make sense. Kafka is almost bored of having to tell a story. In documentary film, there is too much focus on articulating facts. For me, continuity is not that important. Transporting the viewer into that atmospheric world should be the main focus.
Certain shots of The Great Wall reminded me of both Yasujiro Ozu’s use of space as well as the sense of atmosphere that Apichatpong Weerasethakul brings to life. Describe “the vibe” that you wanted to create with this film’s particular topic. Did you intentionally choose to include diegetic sounds right in the middle of your film?
When making a film that deals with real-world human struggles, there is a risk of creating something too stylised, abstracting it too much, causing the loss of humanity that lies at the heart of the project. At a certain point, The Great Wall needed to subtly drop its stylisation to expose the absurdity of life in its most straightforward way. To have not translated what the men in that particular scene were saying was a way of focusing on this strange atmosphere, the absurdity of the situation, instead of the pure use of words and facts.
The Great Wall is narrated by a German woman, which can remind viewers of the similar foreign, distanced voice-over in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. Was this choice made because Kafka wrote in German or for a totally different reason? What is her voice meant to embody?
The main reason for the female, German voice-over was that I began to see the film as I dialogue between what I was doing and what Kafka was doing years ago. I wanted to be the straightest Kafka there could be—he wrote in German—but not necessarily speak Kafka. I did not want to take ownership of him. This is also why I got a woman to read the text. In documentary films, there is a general assumption that all stories are told from a male’s perspective. I wanted to distance myself from that. The Great Wall is about a text being read in dialogue with the film.
“Sovereignty is a word strolling around without any real discussion about what it actually means and, it can not fully be understood without grasping what a state is and why it should exist.”
You are currently working on a new project here in Berlin, focusing on the matters of state and statelessness. Can you tell us a little bit more about this film? How does Berlin contribute to your project?
I am always interested in broad subjects. The state and statelessness project is somewhat of a follow-up to The Great Wall. It comes from my interest in the nation-state and today’s recurring conversations about sovereignty and political independence. The re-insertion of borders has a lot to do with the re-insertion of state’s sovereignty. But, sovereignty is a word strolling around without any real discussion about what it actually means and, it can not fully be understood without grasping what a state is and why it should exist. The notion of ‘deeper truth’ is also something that I am interested in, but I have no thesis. I do not have a particular point that I want to make. I just want to explore this idea that is at the heart of almost all politics now, which consists of the state.
The best way to analyse something is to look at its opposite. In this new project, I am interested in looking at what we understand the state to be through the writings of those who found themselves outside of the state (e.g. Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti), to shine a light on what the state was and was not. We talked about the state as something not necessarily concrete but, that is changing. As today’s state reframes itself as an engine of capital exclusively, it is creating stateless people within by withdrawing citizenship. Those who do not contribute to the running of society are finding themselves outside of the state. Certain countries have created a layer of citizenship which is barely citizenship, who have no rights to what the state gives. Not everybody benefits from it. One of the reasons that I love Berlin is that people here do not talk about things that way. We focus more on what the one people want.
With this new project, it might take me a couple of years to narrow down my research. For now, I have not had one big epiphany like with The Great Wall but lots of mini epiphanies. Films take a long time. Going back to this idea of timelessness, one of the reasons why we have to stop making cinema in journalistic form is that it takes years to make great work and, that stays relevant.
If you had to organise your own “wall” screening, what film would be at the top of your list?
There is a lot of excellent of work dealing with the topic of borders and the nature of power. But, I guess I am glad that I have no film that has come to my mind because if I would have thought of something similar, I guess that I would have no interest in finding the need to do something better. Maybe I am avoiding those same bodies of work as well?
If you had to come up with your own ‘documentary filmmaking’ manifesto, what would one of your main statements be? Any advice for novice documentary filmmakers?
To include deeper, more timeless truths would be one of my fundamental points. A guiding principle would be to use cinema for cinema, for its unique qualities. This particular art form is all about timelessness, about atmosphere, and about creating a visual space where deeper truths can emerge. Avoid using cinema to put journalism on a big screen. Obviously, it is still fine, but I guess it does not interest me as much.
You can visit The Great Wall website here.