Walls is a film that tells the story of people living on either side of three geopolitical interfaces: Mexico|USA, Morocco|Spain, and Zimbabwe|South Africa. We meet people trying to cross over, cross back, keep people in, keep people out, and those trying to save lives in the barren and exposed wastelands.
We have a compulsion to erect fences, keep boundaries and generally compartmentalise territory. The fall of the Berlin Wall was an iconic moment in 1990 and the most familiar physical barrier in western Europe of the 20th Century. (The story of how it came to fall is worth reading).
So called peace walls and fences are a familiar sight in conflict regions around the world, with the dual purposes of keeping people apart and providing reassurance to those living on either side. New interfaces cut wide swathes of land with tracks for vehicles, cameras and security paraphernalia, and several fences in parallel to impede anyone intent on ignoring the barrier.
Nehemiah certainly set a Biblical precedent for building walls – in his case seeking to protect a minority who remained in Jerusalem and were under attack – it only took 52 days, by hand. Compare this effort with US Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s “great wall” along the country’s southern border would require around 1000 miles of concrete at an estimated cost to Mexico of $10-25 billion.
“We are the mice and they are the cats.”
Monkeys have little trouble climbing up and tumbling over the man-made barriers. But the razor wire, wobbly top sections and patrols make it harder for humans.
Footage follows guards up in watch towers as well as those actively planning crossings. A mother longs to be reunited with her three children on the other side of a wall. We catch a glimpse of the unofficial and exploitative commerce that sprouts up across interfaces.
“They realised they can’t stop the people coming in: the fence isn’t the answer.”
A mercenary turned border guard gleefully patrols a sector of fence line protecting his area of farmland. He expresses empathy for those wanting to cross but says “my job is my job”.
Like the museum curator in Lampedusa in Winter who pieced together the stories of refugees from artefacts left behind in the abandoned boat wreck yard, Walls follows two church men as they pick up wallets and personal items left behind in the sandy ground and look into the owners’ lives. As well as distributing water to help the dehydrated living, the pair plant hand made crosses across the landscape to mark the dead. One explains that he recognises the common humanity of those they’re trying to save and are not scared by differences in culture, skin or outlook.
Pablo Iraburu and Migueltxo Molina’s 82 minute film is beautifully crafted and edited, with great use of split screen to compare and contrast characters on either side of the featured interfaces, and across continents. (They also filmed in Bangladesh|India but removed the footage to simplify the final narrative.)
Amongst the cameras, lights, probes and patrols there are drainage tunnels, gaps, dreams, persistence and an abundance of hope. The people attempting to cross prove to be at least as ingenious as those trying to stop them, and certainly more driven.
This film makes the statistics of migration human once again. No one is judged by the filmmakers as right or wrong. It sits in the grey area, the neutral zone betwixt one territory and its neighbour, reminding us to build bridges not walls, and to connect people rather than artificially keeping them apart.