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Don't Fence Me In
21 Aug 2015 : Paul Byrne
With both a retrospective and his latest outing, The Great Wall, at the IFI this week, Irish documentary maker Tadhg OíSullivan talks to Paul Byrne about keeping it real.

The fact that Tadhg OíSullivan is not only a filmmaker and editor but a sound designer and sound recordist might give you some idea of the sensory approach to his documentary film The Great Wall. More art installation than a Noam Chomsky lecture with pics, OíSullivan takes Franz Kafkaís short story, The Building Of The Great Wall Of China, and runs with it. As that flat German voice delivers the riddles and rhymes (all from Kafka, I presume, but, hey, Iím not geek enough to be sure, to be sure), those chilling visions of border control, of barb wife, surveillance cameras, darkened surveillance monitor rooms, night vision goggles, security guards with that Bond henchman distant stare - it all adds up to a fittingly unsettling experience. Which is what Kafka would have wanted, of course.

Having previous worked as editor and sound designer with director Pat Collins on Silence, Living In A Coded Land and What We Leave In Our Wake, OíSullivanís first film, Yximalloo (co-directed by Feargal Ward) won the Prix Premiere for best first feature at FiD Marseille in 2014. So, you know, this Carlow native is serious about keeping it real.

As the IFI host a retrospective on August 23rd, with OíSullivan talking about his earlier works, we managed to grab the documentarian for a few insightful, and incredibly deep, questions...

PAUL BYRNE: The Great Wall is quite the undertaking - what sparked it? Kafka's original story? A personal experience? A love of final fling Pink Floyd...?

TADHG OíSULLIVAN: The film grew out of a general fascination with borders and power. I spent some time in Palestine a few years ago, making a film for Al Jazeera, and the degree to which architecture is used threre as a means of articulating power just blew my mind. It planted a seed that grew into The Great Wall, with the discovery of the Kafka story along the way serving as a hothouse for it along the way.

You shot the film in 11 countries over a year - did it ever feel that this project had perhaps cornered you? Maybe even fenced you in? Or did you always see the light of the projectionist at the end of the tunnel...?

I had a fair idea of the types of things I wanted to shoot and spent a lot of time at the start making lists in terms of where I would find those things. The story was always going to serve as a narrative frame so there was always some structure - it wasnít like other films where the structure would be discovered in a prolonged edit. So no, I was pretty confident I would get there.

It's as much art installation as it is feature film - or am I just being a pretentious twat here...?

Iím pretty open to how work is shown, and where - Iíve gladly exhibited work in galleries and would gladly again. I actually think the trend towards bringing more cinematic work into those contexts is pretty healthy - people like Luke Fowler, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Duncan Campbell make really strong cinematic work for installation. At the same time I think slow, idea-led work can be perfectly at home in the cinema - there is absolutely an audience for it. Iíd be happy to show The Great Wall in a gallery, but it was made with cinema in mind.

There's a whole world of security and pain, and shame, that comes with building walls to keep certain people in and certain people out. Did these dark tales affect you? Did you finish The Great Wall with a greater understanding of human nature?

It absolutely affected me - it wasnít just about the tales either, but also the situations - the walls themselves, the infrastructures and systems that one group of people have made to control or exclude other groups of people. It certainly led to a lot of thinking about human nature - sadly not all of it good. That said, the level of resilience and hope in the face of dark and profound challenges on the part of people fleeing the horrors of war and other catastrophes: that will stay with me, and I was humbled to have been shown it by so many great people.

Made under the Reel Art Scheme - how much of a help was that funding?

Without the Reel Art scheme the film wouldnít have been made - simple as that. I had looked elsewhere unsuccessfully for funding previously: the Reel Art scheme was the only framework that actively encouraged the level of blending of art and cinema that I had in mind.

When it comes to Sunday's retrospective at the IFI, feeling all tingly inside, or do you dread having the spotlight turned on you...?

Like many film folk I spend a lot of time away from the spotlight, whether off shooting somewhere obscure or deep in an edit suite, so it wouldnít be my natural habitat. But itís great to have the work seen, engaged with, talked about - and itís fine to put up with a bit of light for that. And itís only temporary - Iíll disappear for another few years again soon.

Making the move from editing to directing - a natural step, or a journey into the heart of darkness?

Itís a fairly natural progression - editing is central to what I do and I think of directing as just a way of gathering material for an edit. But it isnít new either - Iíve been making films for a long time, itís just that the balance has shifted away from working on other peopleís films.

Were there certain filmmakers you had in mind here? Did the Fricke films - Koyaanisqatsi & the gang - play a part?

I do like those films, and am fond of bold, cinematic essays that have a strong voice - Soy Cuba, The Man With The Movie Camera, Sans Soleil - but Iím more interested in atmosphere - films but also books and plays that create a world around the viewer/reader/audience where big ideas can emerge. Probably not surprisingly the biggest infuence was Kafka, particluarly The Castle.

Is there a gameplan? Feel most comfortable in documentary, or is there a part of you that would love to direct a Bollywood lesbian rom com war story?

Iím most comfortable with a very very small team and a simple idea to work with - I donít really mind after that in terms of documentary or drama or more experimental work. This film has opened things up to working with literature - essentially a script - and there is something very interesting in that for me. Having a collaborator in the form of a genius, who keeps very quiet on account of being long-dead is an interesting creative partnership, and one I would be happy to explore again.

Finally, where to next...?

Iím going away for a little while to do some writing and thinking about Ďwhere to nextÖí.

Find out more about The Great Wall and the IFI public interview here.


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