When he was asked if he would make an animated adaptation of a play about the Palestinian border wall, director Cam Christiansen wasn't entirely sure how he would pull it off.
“I knew as much about the wall as the average North American, which is not very much, I’m afraid,” he says. And yet, over seven years, the animated feature came to life in his hands.
The outcome is Wall – a remarkable adaptation of David Hare's monologue of the same name, first performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2009. In the play, the acclaimed British playwright took to the stage and talked about his experiences in trying to make sense of Israel building a wall surrounding the West Bank.
Finding the right director for the job
Christiansen was sought out by the National Film Board of Canada to make the film following the success of his 2008 animated short film, The Real Place, a poetic look at the life and spirit of leading Canadian playwright John Murrell. It seems strange that the National Film Board of Canada would want to adapt the work of a British playwright with a Middle Eastern focus, but the genesis of the movie was simple, Christiansen says.
National Film Board producers David Christensen and Bonnie Thompson had heard Hare's Wall monologue via the New York Review of Books Podcast. "David thought it would make an interesting film," says Christiansen. "He called me up and said, 'Would you be interested in working with David Hare?' It was an easy decision."
Hare's career has spanned 35 years and he has been described by The Washington Post as "the premiere political dramatist writing in English".
In 1997, the playwright travelled to the Middle East and wrote about his experiences. The resulting play, Via Dolorosa, directed by Stephen Daldry, described the journey and the 33 people he met along the way. Hare would go on to write about his experiences both in the Middle East and working on stage for this production in his book Acting Up.
Hare felt compelled to return to the region after the building of the wall. He was full of questions and went to the West Bank and Israel to try to find answers.
Experiencing the conflict
Wall was also a mirror to Berlin, which Hare performed at the National Theatre in London around the same time. The idea was to juxtapose a story about a wall being built with a tale of a wall being brought down.
But for Christiansen, what little knowledge he had about the wall before the project was the result of renowned British graffiti artist Banksy spray-painting nine stencilled images on to the 708-kilometre barrier in 2005. "I think a lot of people, myself included, knew about the wall because of Banksy. He made it quite high-profile," he says.
The new film is a kind of ode to the play, featuring a cartoon version of Hare as the principle protagonist. "The David Hare on screen is the David Hare I know. I can't really speak for the perception of David Hare elsewhere, but as a Canadian, all I can say is that I feel he tried to listen to both sides and he was really trying to navigate this difficult terrain, which is a very explosive topic. I think he did a fantastic job," Christiansen says. He went to see the wall for himself on three different occasions, and spent time photographing the landscape as well as the wall itself.
He also sought out as many of the people Hare had once spoken to as possible. "I didn't know what to expect – it was pretty eye-opening. To a little Canadian like me, I'm not used to military conflicts. It's very unnerving. I found it a very edgy place. It was important for us to go there and see it," Christiansen says. "What we know of it is that it is a concrete block, but it takes on all these different forms, such as electric fences through fields. In many cases it was really shocking.
"Like, we're outside of Bethlehem and we see the wall cut through an Arab cemetery, bulldozed through a cemetery, you see tombstones flipped on end. It's really harsh."
The difficulties of turning it into an animated film
So how easy is it to make an animated film about such an important topic? Well, if you’re using the type of innovative and dynamic animation Christiansen used, it might take a bit longer than expected – say, for instance, seven years. “We used gaming tools,” Christiansen explains.
“Motion-capture, 3D models and a lot of hand-drawn stuff. We actually shot a lot in England, in Pinewood Studios. We would record actors moving, record their audio and their face and we would piece it all together. We would build all these computer models based on the reference images that we took. And then I did thousands and thousands of drawings.”
Christiansen also decided on a black-and-white colour scheme, reminiscent of the neo-noir Sin City films. "I liked the idea of black and white because of the issue itself," says Christiansen. "It made sense – good and evil, the binary things that relate to the topic – and it allowed us to do the colour splash at the end."
He also worked closely alongside Hare. The pair turned the monologue into a story with several characters. “We wanted to make it more visual, obviously. So we created a fictional storyline of these characters that travel throughout the West Bank, trying to give it more of a narrative. David Hare refers to it as an animated film essay.”
Hare serves as narrator on screen, but the film broadens the scope of the play by also depicting some of the characters he described in his monologue in person – Israeli novelist David Grossman, Professor Neill Lochery of London University, Professor Sari Nusseibeh of Al-Quds University and Ramallah lawyer Raja Shehadeh, to name a few.
Michael Billington, in his review of the Royal Court production of Wall for The Guardian, said: "Though Hare retains the observer's capacity to look at the issue from both sides, in the end he implicitly endorses David Grossman's point that Israel has become 'addicted to occupation' and that survival is now its only aim."
How to end such a film?
In the original play, Hare notes that the language used to describe the barrier is important. Israel calls the barrier a "fence", while Palestinians refer to it as the "racial segregation wall" or the "apartheid wall". To cross it, the road Arabs have to use is a bottleneck that takes more than three hours, while the Israelis can do the same drive in 20 minutes on a free-flowing road. But one thing did catch Christiansen completely by surprise – the way in which the issue of walls became a hot topic during the film-making process: "I had no idea that walls would end up being so important," Christiansen says. "When we started the project, we were even worried that it wouldn't be relevant by the time it was done. It's taken a completely unexpected turn, especially in the United States these days."
But, considering the saga with the actual Palestinian wall is still ongoing, how do you conclude such a film? Christiansen admits it was “really hard”.
“The temptation is to wrap it up and offer something hopeful to people, that we would find a solution. And I don’t think any of us believed any of that, in terms of this situation. So it made a lot of sense for me to put a lot of emphasis on the artist and the graffiti in the end because it’s a non-violent way of expressing emotion.”
Wall opens at the Bertha DocHouse documentary cinema in London on March 1