There are no shortage of impressive moments in Calgary filmmaker Cam Christiansen’s animated documentary Wall.
But it’s safe to say few films this year will boast one as brilliant as the segment that closes his thought-provoking, visually stunning National Film Board collaboration with British playwright David Hare. The five-minute sequence depicts years of layered graffiti that has been painted on the so-called “separation fence” between Israel and Palestine, a 700-kilometre, $4-billion barrier that began construction in 2002, ostensibly to combat terrorist attacks launched from the West Bank.
In Christiansen’s film — playing at Metro Cinema on Saturday, Sept. 15 at 7 p.m.; Sunday, Sept. 16 at 1 p.m.; and Wednesday, Sept 19 at 7 p.m., with the final screening attended by the filmmaker — nearly two decades worth of inventive, politically charged images and slogans spring to vibrant life. It’s beautiful, unsettling, technically dazzling and obviously well beyond what would have been possible in a traditional documentary. It’s also one of the first scenes the filmmaker thought about creating when he was approached by NFB producers to make the film based on Hare’s 2009 monologue of the same name.
“As a visual artist and animator, I could immediately see the connection and how that could be brought to life,” says Christiansen, who was raised in Edmonton. “That was the initial reaction I had.”
What followed was a seven-year journey for the filmmaker, which took him from various areas of the Middle East to Britain’s famous Pinewood Studios to his own Calgary workspace. Using 3-D motion capture technology, state-of-the-art gaming and animation tools and hand drawing, Christiansen’s film follows Hare on a trip to the Middle East where he explores the impact the barrier has had on both sides. Voice actors are used to portray activists and experts — including Israeli novelist David Grossman and Professor Sari Nusseibeh of Al-Quds University — who discuss the wall as both a physical reality and philosophical metaphor.
Hare is a renowned playwright and screenwriter who received Oscar nominations for both 2002’s The Hours and 2008’s The Reader. He has also had a long fascination with the Middle East. His 1998 play Via Dolorosa, for instance, is based on his travels to the region and reflections on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. WALL, his 2009 monologue, was the jumping-off point for the film. But it went through some changes, including the addition of a narrative about three characters who travel throughout the West Bank and get stuck at checkpoints, something both Hare and Christiansen thought was required to give audiences “a sense of the physicality of the wall, so it’s not this abstract concept,” Christiansen says.
“We adapted it together, so I went to England to his incredible studio,” he says. “Initially, it was really intimidating because he is such a formidable guy. You go to his studio and there are photographs signed by Vanessa Redgrave and Meryl Streep. It’s just this incredible, celebrated history he has. But I realized he is a lot like me. He’s a guy who works in his studio and creates worlds and characters through his plays and screenwriting. I really connected with him on that level. In a lot of ways, we’re similar because I do the same thing on a visual level.”
Since making its world premiere last September at the Calgary International Film Festival, Wall has travelled to film festivals around the world, from Copenhagen to Rio de Janeiro, Edinburgh, Tel Aviv and France’s renowned Annecy International Animation Film Festival.
Given it’s prickly topic, Christiansen admits he thought the film would spark much more intense debates during its festival run than it actually did.
“One of the things I’ve appreciated, and what I’m learning, is that within the Jewish community and within the Arab community, there isn’t really any monolithic viewpoints,” he says. “There’s a lot of nuance and conflicting views within each community about the situation. It’s been a really positive experience. In a lot of ways, I’m a bit surprised by that, actually.”
Christiansen studied painting at Calgary’s Alberta College of Art + Design before becoming a commercial animator. In 2007, his six-minute animated short I Have Seen the Future was screened at both the Sundance and Toronto International film festivals. He followed it up with 2008’s short The Real Place, which explored the life and work of playwright and librettist John Murrell, and 2009’s 5 Hole: Tales of Hockey Erotica, based on Dave Bidini’s book.
Wall is his first feature-length film. Created over seven years, it’s a monumental achievement for the filmmaker. Apparently, it was also an exhausting one. Christiansen says his next film will be a live-action drama, based partially on his grandparents’ experiences as Danish immigrants.
“Wall was just a punishing experience,” he says. “I feel like I achieved what I wanted to achieve with it. Do I need to make another one? I don’t think I do at this point. But I really did love the storytelling aspect of it and that’s transferrable to live action.”
When: Saturday, Sept. 15 – 7 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 16 – 1 p.m.
Wednesday, Sept. 19 – 7 p.m. (with Cam Christiansen in attendance)
Where: Metro Cinema, 8712 109 Street NW
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