Why they built the great wall

In Tadhg O’Sullivan’s beautifuly filmed documentary The Great Wall, the rationale behind ‘fortress Europe’ is interrogated through Kafka’s fable of nation-building, “The Building of the Great Wall of China”. At the Open City Documentary Festival, 21 June 2016.

Hsiao-Hung Pai
21 June 2016
"The Great Wall", Tadhg O’Sullivan, 2016.

"The Great Wall", Tadhg O’Sullivan, 2016.When Europe is busying itself building fences, strengthening its borders, and electing far-right parties onto mainstream platforms for them to advocate building more fences and the further tightening of borders, and when we’re bombarded daily with the EU referendum debate about how to protect Britain against outsiders and to ‘take back our country’, don’t we all feel in need of the fresh air of sanity? The Great Wall, a beautifully filmed and soberly narrated feature documentary directed by Tadhg O’Sullivan, offers exactly that.

Based loyally on Franz Kafka’s short story “The Building of the Great Wall of China”, O’Sullivan’s work puts Europe’s wall-building under an intense gaze. It begins at Melilla, a Spanish enclave in North Africa (claimed by Morocco as occupied territory) where Europe’s only land border with Africa is marked by a three-metre barbed fence. It resembles, at first glance, the separation wall in Palestine that O’Sullivan visited before the idea of filming The Great Wall came into shape. Shot in eleven countries, O’Sullivan magnifies such borders in front of our eyes, and challenges viewers to question their own imagined nationhood and their (albeit passive) defence of these militarised frontiers of the continent.

As O’Sullivan’s camera traces the long fence at Europe’s doorstep, Kafka’s fable of nation-building follows the fictional character of a mason who left his village to join tens of thousands of workers in the grand task of building the great wall at the centre of the world. Construction of the wall was conducted in piecemeal sections, by teams of workers. Each team took on a five-hundred-metre-long section of the wall, and then on completion of the section, was sent off to build another section of the wall somewhere else. Workers were able to see other teams working on various different sections of the wall, which made them feel very much part of a grand project, and gave them a great sense of pride and personal responsibility. However, mysteriously, the workers never saw the separate wall sections continued, and never witnessed the great wall completed.

They therefore became trapped in believing in the grand project: while devoting their lives to it, they never really knew what exactly the un-completed construction must be for.

O’Sullivan’s camera captures border staff diligently looking out on their screens for any illegal crossing. Anyone attempting to climb over the wall into Europe will be taken down.

Kafka’s mason worker discovered the gaps in between the disjointed sections of the wall. “Indeed, there are said to be gaps that have never been filled in at all…a claim, however, that may simply belong to the many legends that have arisen around the construction…and which cannot be verified by any one individual with his own eyes…or with his own compass. Such is the scale of the structure.” Like the imperial myth that the kingdom was situated at the centre of the earth, the wall construction was not to be questioned. The point seemed simply about building for the ‘good’ of the totality.

The allegory applies to West Bank, where the separation wall continues to be built and there are gaps to be filled. The total length of the wall will be around 810km, each kilometer costing $2 million. But what is it about? Who is it keeping apart?

Kafka's mason worker couldn’t help feeling puzzled: how will the wall with gaps between sections achieve the stated aim of fending off the northern invaders? Besides, who are these northern invaders? The mason workers had no idea. Why would they have any idea? Even their own emperor was far away and the villagers had never seen their rulers in real life. But then, perhaps the absence of knowledge is the whole point. The invention of an enemy is part and parcel of the building of imperial power, and the enemy is most feared when kept as mythical. Invaders from the north in Kafka’s story existed only in legends for the mason workers. “In the true-to-life imagery of the artists, we see these faces of damnation…Gaping mouths flung open, sharp-pointed teeth jutting from their jaws…Narrowed eyes, seemingly strained, as though fixed upon a quarry…Jaws ready to crush and tear asunder. When children are bold, we show them these images…and they immediately leap crying to our arms...” But other than this, they do not know about these invaders. None of them had seen the invaders in real life. The enemy’s infiltration seemed to have only existed in the public mind.

O’Sullivan’s camera once again falls on the concrete walls, the barbed wires, the omnipresent machines of surveillance that are used to divide the Europeans from the other, the invented enemy. Kafka’s northern invaders become an allegory for the enemy of today. “Against whom was the great wall to provide protection? Against the people of the north…No northern people can threaten us here. We read about them in the books of the ancients…The cruelties they commit, in accordance with their nature, makes us heave a sigh on our peaceful promenades…”

These are the people about whom Europeans know little, but exist in their stories: myths of differences, threat and invasion.  

Eventually, the mason worker began to question the rationale behind the building of the great wall: “To the incorruptible observer, it would never have been conceivable that, had the authorities wanted to, it couldn’t have overcome the obstacles that stood in the way of continuous construction. So, the only conclusion is that the authorities in fact intended this system of piecemeal construction... So, the conclusion is that the authority wanted something entirely unfit for purpose. A strange conclusion indeed.”

The mason worker finally understood the reason behind the never-to-be-completed great wall. It was not meant to be completed, and wouldn’t be, if the myth of the enemy was to remain meaningful to the populace of the 'Middle Kingdom'. If the building of the walls have to be explained, and justification is needed for the belief that there is a threat from a real enemy, then those who run the fortress fear that their legitimacy may be challenged – and in the worst case scenario for them, the fortress might crumble. After all, the walls are what give meaning to the existence of the fortress.

Throughout, O’Sullivan powerfully presents the divide on two sides of the wall: the dizzying wealth at the seat of power in metropolitan Europe and the poverty and entrapment of those kept outside it, particularly those kept in detention and those on permanent move in search of a place of refuge. The former sets the rules and defines ‘us’ and ‘them’; the latter are fighting their ground and are constantly being defined as refugees, migrants, economic migrants, and so on. Likewise, the separation wall in the West Bank segregates Palestinians – a population numbering 266,442 – and maintains their impoverishment, with large amounts of their farmland destroyed and water supplies controlled. The aim of the state is to subordinate and, consequently, to dominate: a colonial project.

Again, the great wall has served its purpose. Kafka’s mason worker knew the secret of the construction at last, but he chose to remain silent.

“The Great Wall” is screening at the Open City Documentary Festival, 21 June 2016.

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