BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS WITH ANIMATED FILM ESSAY
This Wall took seven years to construct and, sadly, it remains as relevant as ever
Cam Christiansen and David Hare had slightly different concerns when it came to the timeliness of their animated documentary, Wall.
Christiansen, the Calgary artist and filmmaker who animated and directed the National Film Board feature, admits he was initially worried the project’s long gestation might dampen the impact of a film set in the raw, evershifting backdrop of the Middle East. Would a politically-charged documentary written seven long years ago still be relevant in 2017 and beyond?
Hare, the British playwright and Oscar-nominated screenwriter who stars in and wrote Wall based on his monologue, didn’t see it that way. He wasn’t worried about it losing relevance.
He wishes it had.
Both artists now realize it’s become even more relevant.
“One always hoped that it would become out of date,” says Hare, in a phone interview from his home in London. “But unfortunately, it hasn’t become out of date. The building of the wall that once seemed like the most fantastical project — They’re going to build a wall between Israel and Palestine? — no longer is such a terrifyingly original idea. Indeed, clearly, since the question of the Mexican wall came up, the metaphor of the film is much clearer.”
Wall follows Hare on a trip to the Middle East, where he explores the impact a wall separating Israel and Palestine has had on the people of the region. Construction of the 80-kilometre, $4-billion barrier began in 2002, ostensibly to combat terrorist attacks launched from the West Bank. In 2004, the International Court of Justice in The Hague said the barrier violates international law and infringes on the rights of Palestinians.
Hare, an acclaimed playwright who received Oscar nominations for his screenplays for The Hours and The Reader, has long had a fascination with the Middle East. His 1998 play Via Dolorosa is a monologue based on his travels to the region and reflections on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“You can post-hoc produce all sorts of rationalization about the things that interest you and things that don’t interest you,” Hare says. “But with the Middle East, the minute I went in there I went: ‘Oh my God, this is the most wonderful subject matter.’
“I’m not sure I could articulate why. But obviously, when I first went, it was about people who live by faith and people who don’t. I was fascinated by the subject of people who suffer for their beliefs. In the West, until Donald Trump does even worse than he’s doing at the moment, what we believe doesn’t cost us anything. In other words, you can have an opinion and your opinion may or may not affect how you live but it won’t cost you your life.”
But while Hare may have been interested in the vagaries of the Middle East and what was happening there during a specific period of time, he says the themes of Wall have universal weight that, perhaps, have become even more universal in light of a recent history that produced a U.S. president seemingly obsessed with division and walls.
“It’s not meant to be journalism, it’s meant to be art and art always
has a metaphor,” Hare says. “The metaphor in this case is about whether it’s possible for a society to close itself off behind a wall; and if it does close itself off behind a wall, what’s the effect on that society? That’s really the question the film is asking. That is a metaphorical question as much as a literal question.”
While the National Film Board has labelled Wall a documentary — and it will have its world première as part of the Calgary International Film Festival’s documentary series on Sept. 25 — Hare doesn’t quite agree with that classification. He prefers to call it an “essay.”
“There are film essays by people like Orson Welles and Michael Moore, but when it comes to animated film essays, I think this may well be a first,” he says with a laugh.
If it is a documentary, it is certainly one that blurs boundaries and takes the medium to wonderfully strange new worlds.
While there are talking-head experts and artists in the film — including Israeli novelist David Grossman, Professor Neill Lochery of London University and Professor Sari Nusseibeh of Al- Quds University — they are all played by voice actors.
Christiansen’s style as an animator, meanwhile, is a feast for the eyes that veers from haunting, dreamlike and expressive to stark and realistic. In the seven years he worked on the film, Christiansen used hand drawing and state-ofthe-art gaming and animation tools. He travelled to Britain’s famous Pinewood Studios to work with actors to produce 3-D motion-capture footage and made several trips to the Middle East to realistically capture the surroundings.
Mostly done in black and white with the odd flash of colour, the film nevertheless has a poetic, almost surreal quality. In one scene, the roots of a tree violently uprooted to make way for the Wall seamlessly morph into a leafy canopy in a quiet Israeli neighbourhood, where Hare and fellow intellectuals pontificate about the barrier and what it says about the nature of Israel. Another stunningly inventive sequence has the graffiti on the barrier springing to vibrant life.
If Wall is an animated documentary, and Christiansen seems equally uncomfortable with the label, it belongs to a fairly young sub- genre. Still, Christiansen knew his film would inevitably in- vite comparisons to Ari Folman’s groundbreaking Waltz with Bashir, a harrowing 2008 animated documentary about the 1982 Lebanon War.
“I was trying to find my own language, basically,” says Christiansen, whose past work includes the 2008 short film The Real Place, a beautifully animated tribute to Calgary theatre icon John Murrell.
“It came out of that, but also I wanted to have real mark-making in my film, like brush strokes. The hand of the artist is really present in my film. That was really conscious on my part. I wanted to take an approach that was much different than something like Pixar. We could tackle subject matter that Pixar could never tackle. The film board has a real history of what they call auteur filmmaking in terms of animation, where there is an individual behind it.”
Both Hare and Christiansen credit the National Film Board for its formidable investment in the film. They were in it for the long haul — and it was a very long haul.
Calgary-based NFB producer David Christensen was making a three-hour commute in 2010 when he stumbled upon the podcast of Hare’s monologue, also called WALL, about the security barrier in the West Bank. He was immediately struck by the visual possibilities that could accompany the playwright’s unique observations on the subject. He envisioned an animated film. Having worked with Christiansen on The Real Place, he thought the filmmaker would be perfect for the project.
It was expected to take three years or so and have a 2014 release. Instead, it will have its world première at this year’s Calgary International Film Festival.
“I’m proud we made it to the finish line,” Christiansen says. “I have a lot less stress in my life and I’m taking a bit of a sabbatical. It feels pretty wonderful.”
Wall will première Sept. 25 at 6:30 p.m. at the Globe Cinema and screen Oct. 1 at 1 p.m. at Cineplex Eau Claire as part of the festival. Christiansen, Hare and Christensen will all be at the Sept. 25 screening. Visit calgaryfilm.com for more information.
Also, join an in-depth conversation with Hare on Sept. 24 at 3:30 p.m. at Cineplex Eau Claire 3, moderated by Shelley Youngblut.
On Sept. 27 at 5:30 p.m. at Paper Street, NEB filmmakers Christiansen, Carol Beecher and Bill Dyer will join a panel discussion led by Christensen.
Both events are free.
Calgary artist and filmmaker Cam Christiansen’s feature, Wall, uses different animation techniques to explore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,
David Hare and Cam Christiansen worked together on Wall, which has been described as a documentary, although the filmmakers don’t see it that way.
Wall asks the question: can a society truly wall itself off from the world, and what are the consequences?