Scannain Talks: The Great Wall with director Tadhg O’Sullivan

There is something impressive about a filmmaker getting two films into a film festival. It is a rare thing indeed particularly in Ireland. Filmmaker Tadhg O’Sullivan managed this at the 2015 Jameson Dublin Film festival with Yximalloo and The Great Wall. Both were very impressive films, with The Great Wall getting a release in the IFI in Dublin from August 21st. Using Franz Kafka’s The Building of Great Wall of China short story as a jumping off point, O’Sullivan’s film takes in various parts of the world and how walls are constructed both as visible and invisible barriers to movement. I caught up with Tadhg O’Sullivan during the Jameson Dublin Film festival and I began by asking him how he approached the story.

“It didn’t start with the short story” he says “I didn’t set out to make an adaptation of the story. I set out with a very particular interest in political geography and how architecture can be a tool for articulating power and I read an awful lot around this subject it was just something I was really fascinated with. There was a chapter in a book where they had a quote from the Kafka short story as a quote at the start of a chapter and I read that and I had one of those great moments where you can instantly see things coming together and went to get my collected Kafka off the shelf and sat down and read the story. I realised that there was something in putting these two subjects together, to use Kafka as a prism, as a lens to look at this subject. The subject is so vast you could make a million films from it but for me I am not that interested in making films that are transpositions of academic books. I would love to see them but I am not that interested in making them. So for me, finding this way into the subject which was through a literary, poetic, mysterious work was just the light bulb and from there I just proceeded into the subject matter.”

This seems like a mammoth undertaking for a low budget film. How long did the filmmaking take? “It was a specific amount of time” he says “I got the Reel Art funding in January 2014 but with research to do first I shot the first scene in May 2014. There were sporadic trips up until the last thing we shot in Athens which was in the middle of November 2014. In between I was editing things together.”

I venture that this is a remarkably quick turnaround to get the film ready four months after it stopped filming for the 2015 Jameson Dublin Film festival. “Sure” he says very casually. “It was really intense. But at the same time I had been developing the film for a couple of years before. I had been to Melilla in 2012 when I first had the idea of putting the film together. I took some photographs, shot some video and met some people and further developed the idea so a lot of the groundwork was done. So by the time the Reel Art funding came through I was ready to go.”


One thing I noticed watching the film was that you seem to avoid showing recognisable landmarks. A deliberate act I would imagine. It seems otherworldly at times. Would that be fair? “I am glad you picked up on that” he says making this reviewer feel very smart. “There is a lot of Paris and London in it and various other places but I wanted it be a somewhat mysterious landscape. The conceit of the film if you want to call it that in my head is that the building of the Great Wall of China is written by a Czech Jew living under the Hapsburg Empire reimagining the mind of a Chinese labourer 2,000 years ago. So the conceit of this film is in order to replicate some of the mystery that is in the story. what was in my head was what would a Chinese historian in 2,000 years’ time imagine what Europe would be like, that is the Europe I want to come across in the film. That Chinese historian in 2,000 years’ time wouldn’t distinguish between the subtleties of Bulgarian law vis-a-vis migrants and German law. They wouldn’t distinguish between German culture and French culture. These would be seen as dialects. It also allowed me to stand back and create something more poetic and not get bogged down in the specifics.”

There is a stunning sequence in the film that seems to show a heavy police presence in an unnamed city. A little hairy to film I presume? “Well there are three locations gone into that sequence.” He pauses and laughs. Let’s not go into the detail on that, leave the mystery.” And that is key I think. The Great Wall is nothing if not tricky geography. “What I will say is that the militarisation of security is a really interesting phenomenon at the moment.” I mention in terms of America this seems quite timely in that regard. “It is” he sighs, “what is happening is that the police are becoming more like the military and the military are becoming more like the police. It is particularly noticeable in the US and Israel where traditionally the police would carry out certain roles. In the modern world the military are doing that now so that the police and military are sort of blurring into one. What are also blurring are our very ideas of what a wall and what a border is. So it is no longer the extreme edges of things. That sequence you mentioned is a cinematic realisation of the idea of ad hoc temporary borders usually within urban situations where I took three major events and ran them into an overview of that kind of situation.”


I asked him a question I asked Mark O’Connor a few years earlier. How the hell do you get two films into the one film festival when some Irish filmmakers struggle to get one done? “It has been a really intense, busy and blessed couple of years for me workwise. After I edited Silence (Pat Collins) in 2011 I took some time off because I could afford to. I then started researching The Great Wall. At the same time my friend Feargal (Feargal Ward) who came to me with this idea for a feature about this Japanese musician Yximalloo. That was Feargal’s project but he asked me to shoot one thing for him. I shot that one thing and then became hooked on that project. And so that then took off and at the same time The Great Wall was bubbling away and awaiting funding. By the time Yximalloo was finished The Great Wall was ready to go. It was great that they overlapped and we managed to get both into the festival.”

Finally what is next? Surely a break? “There are a couple of films I would like to make but they are very loose ideas at the moment. I would like to take some time to see where they go and develop things a little more. I can tell you for definite I won’t have two films in next year’s festival!” he laughs.

The Great Wall opens at the IFI on the 21st August. Tickets on sale now.