“A country has reached a point at which 84% of its people are in favor of a wall along its borders,” writer David Hare tells us in the opening minutes of the 2017 animated film, “WALL,” which begins a week-long run at New York’s Film Forum April 3-9 as part of the theater’s admission-free week.
Hare, the celebrated British playwright and screenwriter of “The Hours,” isn’t talking about the United States. (The level of consensus alone should tip us off there). No, he is referring to Israel’s controversial, 435-mile West Bank border wall built to defend Israelis and settlers against terror attacks. Screening the film today can’t help but recall Trump’s signature campaign promise, a development neither Hare, or the Canadian director and animator Cam Christiansen, could have anticipated when they first began production years before. But sadly the film’s largely lopsided handling of a complex issue often risks teetering into a moral absolutism more readily leveled at Trumpian dogma.
“WALL,” like Hare’s 2009 monologue of the same name, follows the writer as he treks along the wall, a $4 billion feat of civil engineering and a nightmare for Palestinians who live outside of it. The wall, crowned with barbed wire, zigs and zags outside of the Green Line, curves to enclose Israeli settlements and includes checkpoints at which many Palestinians are routinely harassed as they come and go. Hare plays himself in the film, motion captured in a Lycra suit and head camera, appearing as a kind of robotically rotoscope-y grayscale SIM composited against 2D reference photos collected by Christiansen on location. While touted as cutting edge the animation, with the exception of a wall graffiti extravaganza at the end, registers as more PlayStation than Pixar.
Hare’s avatar tells us that while the Israelis, in Hebrew, call the structure in question a “Separation Fence,” the Palestinians refer to it as a “Racial Segregation Wall.” He hears out a number of Israeli intellectual types’ opinions on the wall (which I’ll call a wall): Three Jews in a room, four opinions. One asserts that the structure is an unfortunate yet effective solution for preventing suicide bombings, another views it as a monument of shame, another claims it as an “admission of defeat” and the first chimes in again to state he was against the wall from the beginning.
In a flashback to 2001, the impetus for the wall’s erection is given its due. On June 1 of that year, a Hamas-planted suicide bomber killed 21 Israelis, mostly teenagers, at the Dolphinarium Discotheque, a Tel Aviv nightclub. For some reason, the film gives the bomber’s full name but doesn’t mention his ties to Hamas. Christiansen animates the lead up to the explosion and the carnage, but in another odd decision, all but obscures the faces of the figures killed – hiding them in shadow or behind scooter helmets and sunglasses.
It’s a curious choice as this sequence, coming in the opening minutes, provides the only explicit justification for the wall in the film. Elsewhere, as in the next scene, where the wall takes shape, the indignities suffered by Palestinians are caught in agonizing close-up. That scene, with its domino-like cascade of wall segments, accompanied by ominous music and mammoth text bearing cost and dimensional logistics, is far more jarring in its execution than anything shown in the nightclub.
“Even the most ardent supporters of the fence admit that it is, like the blockade of Gaza, a source of huge inconvenience to Palestinians,” Hare says as the last chunks of the wall shut Palestinians out of Israel proper. “But they argue, in the words of one defender, that ‘the deaths of Israelis caused by terror are permanent and irreversible, whereas the hardships faced by the Palestinians are temporary and reversible.’”
We don’t have to wonder much about what the filmmaker thinks of that argument, juxtaposing the quote with two armed soldiers frisking an unarmed Palestinian.
Throughout the film Hare undercuts Israeli concerns. He dismisses the assertion of novelist David Grossman (Paul Jesson) that Israelis recognize the fragility of their state and that despite their appearance of strength feel weak – though not to his face. In the next scene, Hare reflects on Grossman’s words (which are echoed in a pathetic sounding voiceover), making cracks about his comfy home as Hare and his companion, Steven Hoffman (Elliot Levey), and their Palestinian driver, Afif (Nayef Rashed) approach an unpleasant-looking checkpoint.
“How, you wonder are the Palestinians to know the Israelis feel weak when all they see is the Israelis acting strong?” Hare muses. As if vulnerability would ever be something Israelis would want to project.
If you expect Hare to mention Hamas and its history of aggression in the West Bank, as well as Gaza, he does – in a roundabout way. Rather than showing their sporadic attacks near the border wall or the rockets being fired from their seat in the Gaza Strip, we see some of its members interrogating a Palestinian they believe was informing on them.
When Hare relates a story of Hamas’ torture of the man – by pointing to a wall painting of a bicycle and ordering the man to retrieve the bike – Hoffman replies, “OK, what does that prove? Hamas aren’t very nice? You wouldn’t be very nice if you lived under permanent siege.” As if this anecdote were at all representative of Hamas’ worst crimes or that their situation excused them.
Hare doesn’t push back. Instead, he wonders at the torturers’ creativity in asking their victim to pry a two-dimensional scribble from the wall on which it’s painted, spinning it into a parable of a persecuted people. “It’s as if its some metaphor for how Palestinians were feeling. That everything is a drawing, everything is unattainable.” (I’m doubtful that most Palestinians would welcome their conflation with radical members of Hamas).
There is a moment in the film where Hare gets genuinely angry with someone other than an Israeli. It happens toward the end when he’s in a café in Nablus and he spies a picture of Saddam Hussein on the wall. He’s livid that Palestinians would choose him as their role model, and yells at Afif when he praises the Iraqi dictator for the way he dealt with the Americans.
In an inner monologue, Hare appears to have a breakthrough. “The Israelis want to separate themselves from people who display posters of Saddam Hussein – who can blame them?” he wonders, but then draws the wrong conclusion. “Or do they display Saddam Hussein because somebody put up a wall?”
Well, given the fact that acts of terror predate the wall – and one such act is even featured in a token instance in this film – that seems like feels a tad fallacious. Though, to be fair, the wall is not the cause of any good will in the region and is a lasting impediment to peace.
In the beginning of the film Hare wonders aloud at the wall’s massive support, saying, “4/5 of a nation is saying something completely bizarre.” Baked into that premise are questions of what makes this country different, what real threat its citizens fear that could justify something as radical as a barrier. In neglecting to show the causes – the air raid sirens, the knifings, the rockets and the rocks – the film proves to be indifferent to the question.
‘WALL’ Falls Too Much To One Side
‘WALL’ Falls Too Much To One Side
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.
This story "‘WALL’ Falls Too Much To One Side" was written by PJ Grisar.