Why do people hate the “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, Southern border wall,” as Donald Trump called his administration’s proposed construction, while the Great Wall of China is a beloved tourist destination? Drawing on both archival research and ethnographic fieldwork, William Callahan’s documentary Great Walls invites viewers to rethink the moralizing binaries so often associated with border walls. In problematizing the discourse of walls as inherently good or bad, Callahan seeks to open up space for a more nuanced appreciation of “what walls can do” (Callahan 2018, 468). Callahan’s film explores various ‘visualities’ of border walls in different times and different cultural contexts to show us how walls themselves work as gateways that are neither completely closed nor completely open. In doing so, Callahan also provides a mediation on what filmmaking can do as an ethnographic method.

What Callahan spurs us to challenge is the premise that walls are “problems” that need to be “solved” (Callahan 2018, 460). When Berlin Wall came down in 1989, it was meant to signal the end of the Cold War rivalry between a totalitarian East and a democratic West, a victory for freedom and openness.

However, the fall of the Berlin Wall did not result in a new borderless world. Rather, many new walls have been built and nationalist populism has exploded worldwide (Callahan 2018, 462). The invisible wall advocated by nationalist populism functions in much the same way as the material Berlin Wall once did: as a site of both inclusion and exclusion, marking the inside from the outside. Here ‘inside’ denotes safety, law, and sovereignty, while ‘outside’ marks danger, violence, and anarchy (Callahan 2018, 461). Following this line of thinking reaches the same solution, that is, to reveal the plight of vulnerable people on the other side of the wall and to tear down the ideological, social, and physical walls that separate humans from each other.

In contrast to the negative connotations of the Berlin Wall or Trump’s border wall, Callahan’s film represents the Great Wall of China as a beloved place and a symbol of the pride and unity of the Chinese nation. This sentiment is carved in the stone monument of the Great Wall with Mao Zedong’s words, “You’re not a hero until you’ve gone to the Great Wall (不到长城非好汉)”. Yet even a celebrated site retains undercurrents of exclusivity. In this phrase, it is noteworthy that haoHan (好汉) means ‘hero’ but it also means ‘good Chinese’ and ‘good Han’, which makes a racially-exclusive distinction between Han and non-Han groups (Callahan 2018, 470). As Callahan depicts tourists joyfully taking photos along the Great Wall or playing volleyball and practicing yoga along the San Diego/Tijuana border, Callahan reveals heterogenous everyday experience rather than the homogenous ideology of exclusivity connected to border walls.

How then can we better understand the inherently diverse meanings of walls, where the clear boundaries between the inside and the outside are in fact blurred? Callahan asks his viewers to step away from simply condemning the walls as immoral sites of exclusion and focus on not just what they mean, but also what they can do — and how they are shaped by contextual, and contingent relations that come cross between the ideal and lived experiences (Callahan 2018, 467). To examine the role of walls as gateways, sites of meeting and exchange that are neither completely closed nor completely open, Callahan proposes shifting our attention from ‘facts’ to ‘feelings’ that value person-to-person relations and everyday emotions and experiences.. Hence, in this mode, walls are seen as “multisensory experiences of sight, sound, touch, smell that (re)partition the visible, the sayable, and the thinkable” rather than figuring them as essential object or symbolic barriers (ibid, 475). In contrast to walls that should be pulled down, walls here are not problems. Resistance does not necessarily mean a wall-free borderless world. Rather, it “emerges through more nuance repartitions the sensible that create new political dynamics, as well as new political problems” (Callahan 2018, 475).

In this analytical shift from issues of ideology to the critical aesthetic mode, Callahan employs documentary filmmaking as a useful method for illustrating the affective dimension entangled in political work that border walls do. In on-camera interviews, Callahan pays particular attention to “how did it make you feel” questions alongside asking “what happened”. Appreciating participants’ on-camera testimonials as a performance, documentary filmmaking treats the visuality of the illustrated affective dynamics as an opportunity as it can provoke and construct new social relations, communities united in a shared aesthetic experience that is nonlinear and, at times, invisible (Callahan 2018, 475; Callahan 2015, 904).

This performative mode of documentary filmmaking allows ethnographers to represent the work that border walls do outside of their role in struggles for state power, and instead focus on their role gathering people and shaping the parameters of sight, movement, and thought. Yet it also raises an ethical and methodological issues relating to informants’ sensory experiences. If the filmmaker is ultimately responsible for registering and representing their informants’ private, internally registered experiences, as Callahan notes it, it is important for researchers to be well aware of an ethic of hospitality.

Jiyoung Cho is a Ph.D. student in Politics at The New School for Social Research