BREAK­ING DOWN BAR­RI­ERS WITH ANIMATED FILM ESSAY

This Wall took seven years to con­struct and, sadly, it re­mains as rel­e­vant as ever

Calgary Herald - - YOU - ERIC VOLMERS

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“One al­ways hoped that it would become out of date,” says Hare, in a phone in­ter­view from his home in Lon­don. “But un­for­tu­nately, it hasn’t become out of date.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.

PHOTOS: NA­TIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA

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?

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