Premiering at this year’s Audi Dublin International Film Festival are two documentaries which, though under very different circumstances, each provide compelling studies of major contemporary issues on the island of Ireland: Feargal Ward’s The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid and Sinead O’Shea’s A Mother Brings Her Son To Be Shot.
“What happened to Thomas in the real world is extraordinary. If you were to tell someone what happened to him, what the State did, how they went about doing what they tried to do – it sounds fantastical.”
Feargal Ward’s highly arresting documentary tells the story of Thomas Reid, a farmer living in Leixlip, County Kildare. Reid fell victim to the government’s Industrial Development Authority when it was legally decreed that ownership of his farm must pass to them, despite Reid’s wishes, for the purpose of attracting foreign investment. Thomas’s 72-acre estate sits between Intel’s Leixlip plant and Carlton House in Maynooth, and has been in his family since the early 1900s. In 2012, however, after rejecting all offers to voluntarily sell his land (the sums offered were reputedly in the millions), Thomas was issued a Compulsory Purchase Order by the IDA, using powers granted to them by 1986’s Industrial Development Act. Following a High Court decision in 2013, which found the actions of the IDA to be perfectly legitimate and thus ruled against Thomas’s appeal, Thomas brought his case to the Supreme Court in a last-ditch attempt to save his home. Two years later, the Supreme Court dramatically overturned the High Court decision, and the IDA were forced to abandon their claim.
Ward’s documentary, as one might expect, depicts the events of Reid’s life leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision. However, and in contrast to my own expectations, rather than being a heavily narrated courtroom-procedural documentary with plenty of talking-head experts, Ward’s work is a minimalist, moving portrait of Reid, the 50-something year old who lives and works alone. For the duration of the film, the camera’s illuminating eye almost never strays from Thomas’s farmstead, and the effect produced speaks equally to Thomas’s intimacy with his land, his close relationship with his animals etc., and to his isolation from human society.
On his choice to focus so exclusively on Thomas’s daily routine, Ward says that “there’s many forms of documentary filmmaking. The one I was drawn to for telling this story was an experiential one. I wanted to bring you into Thomas’s world, into his land. You’ll see in the film that everything is shot on the confines of his land, because that’s what the film is really about. Everything takes place there. I even brought the reconstruction of the legal proceedings onto his land. I wanted to create that situation where a person can become immersed and actually get a sense of what it must’ve been like to be put through what he was put through. So Thomas is in every frame, with the camera always a specific distance from him, in order to create the immersive cinematic experience I like when working in documentary.”
As Ward mentions, between lengthy scenes of Thomas feeding calves in the morning or listening to the radio in the evening, the audience is witness to the various courtroom proceedings which determined Thomas’s case, reconstructed with actors in costume and using the actual courtroom transcripts, taking place on Thomas’s own land. It’s an unusual cinematic device, and works surprisingly well. For Ward, that the reconstructions take place on Thomas’s land serves another purpose, besides underlying the significance of Thomas’s acreage.
“The thing is, what happened to Thomas in the real world is extraordinary. If you were to tell someone what happened to him, what the State did, how they went about doing what they tried to do – it sounds fantastical. But of course, for Thomas, tragically, it was all real. So there’s a sense that, with the reconstruction’s knowing artificiality, we’re inviting the audience to ask themselves ‘Is this really happening? Could this all be true?’ This film plays with narrative unreliability to a degree, at least at the beginning, because as the story unfolds all of Thomas’ fears, and what some people perceived to be his paranoia about things, turn out to be justified. These things are happening to him. The government is moving against him. They are going to remove him from his farm.”
Given the level of personal exposure, I asked Feargal if Reid took much convincing to participate in the project. “Yes a huge amount of convincing. I had to gain his trust – as you can imagine, given what was going on behind closed doors and around his farm, he was incredibly suspicious of everybody coming towards him. He wasn’t taking anything at face value. And so it was a very slow, slow process of building trust. It was months and months. I can’t remember exactly when we even took out a camera, it might have been six months of just meeting every few days, every week, before taking the first still photographs, before the first audio recording, then eventually bringing the camera onto his farm.”
Throughout the documentary, the radio plays an important role, communicating information regarding Reid’s case, and also serving to convey Reid’s love of music. According to Ward, “Thomas is quite an isolated person, which can be very lonely at times. He’s a farmer with over a hundred head of cattle, and I’m not sure how much you or your readers will know about farming, but basically it means that he works non-stop, and is on call 24 hours of the day. There isn’t much of a social outlet in that line of work. Traditionally there would have been a local mart, where you’d have gone down once a week to buy or sell a few cattle, but that’s been demolished for twenty years, and has now been replaced by one of Ireland’s biggest Tescos. That’s now his social outing – going to Tesco. But the radio is his tool for social inclusion, and in two ways. First, the radio tells him what’s going on in the world, and most importantly, what’s going on with relation to his own case, with his town and his land. And second, he is an avid music collector. He used to get the bus into town to buy records when a teenager, and the radio provides him a connection to that interest. The radio is really his main connection to the outside world. And indeed, much of the film is told through the radio. Without the radio, we wouldn’t have had the film.”
A further motif that runs through the film is Thomas’s tendency to hoard. In the living room where he listens to the radio, vast collections of newspapers, documents and other ephemera crowd the space, reducing Thomas’s ability to move. At one particularly telling moment, he gestures to the enormous sprawl and criticizes it, for preventing him from looking out his own windows: “All that stuff is blocking me now,” he says, “I can’t see anything. All that old stuff is there blocking me. And I can’t get rid of it.” It’s a very powerful moment, because in it you catch a glimpse of the horror that is befalling Thomas, whose life is so tied to the things around him, to the walls of his house, the earth on which his cattle lay. Clearly, it would be better if he could get rid of the things that were blocking his view – it would be better if he could let go of the past. The prospect of making millions from the sale of a plot in rural Kildare sounds appealing to almost anyone. But the point is this: who has the right to make Thomas let go of the past, if, for whatever reason, he is unable or unwilling to do so? The IDA were not simply taking away his possessions, but his past, and with it his sense of self.
As Ward says, “I think we can all empathise with the need to let go of things, and with our very human inability to do so. It’s so easy to be trapped in the past. And all those things are at play with Thomas. He’s sort of frozen in time, but of course the past keeps getting bigger and bigger, and so what’s surrounding him in that room gradually builds up.” But there is another aspect to Reid’s hoarding that should not be ignored either, says Ward, for “in another sense, the mountain of stuff in his hallways and living space just show how dysfunctional anyone’s day to day living can become, when people are put under huge stress. If someone comes to you, especially if you’re in farming, and tells you that your home and land, which has been in your family’s possession since before the founding of the state, is going to be taken away and you’ve no say in it – and nobody’s listening to you, nobody’s coming to help – how would you react? Much of what he’s surrounded by are legal documents. Every piece of paper he could get his hands on, anything he could print off. That’s what’s building up around him.”
Equally arresting, though in a completely different way, is Sinead O’Shea’s A Mother Brings Her Son To Be Shot, executive-produced by Joshua Oppenheimer.
O’Shea’s film deals with the unlikely case of Majella O’Donnell, a woman in Derry who, in the early 2010s, drove her 19 year old son to an appointment with paramilitaries, where he was shot. Before you judge too harshly, consider the fact that these paramilitaries had delivered an ultimatum to Majella: either bring your son to be shot in the legs, or face something far worse. Young Philly O’Donnell had fallen foul of one of the armed organisations that still exist in the city, whose origin stems from the militant Republican movement of the Troubles-era. The reason for Philly’s attack is never quite made explicit, though the implication seems to be that he was involved in drug abuse, a social ill which the various paramilitary groups seek vigorously to eradicate from their communities.
Having heard the tale, Sinead, an investigative journalist with impressive credentials (including articles for the Guardian and the New York Times), travelled to the Creggan Road/Rosemount area wherein much of the story unfolds. There she met Hugh Brady, an ex-IRA member – he spent 22 years of his life with the organisation, beginning in the 1970s – who now acts as a mediator, seeking to navigate the complex relationships between paramilitaries and the communities within which they operate.
According to Sinead, Hugh “hugely facilitated the film. It really couldn’t have been made without him – he was the one who encouraged Majella to meet me. At that point, Majella was still negotiating against Philly being shot again, and Hugh was central to those negotiations. When I first met Majella, she told me about how Philly and his younger brother Kevin Barry had recently been stopped walking down the street. This was after Philly had been shot, so he was still using crutches. These men took the crutches off Philly and beat him, with Kevin Barry watching. So at that time, Majella was feeling very defeated.”
Though the friendship the director built with members of the O’Donnell family was obviously strong, her visits – “I went 42 times to visit the area” – were often delayed or suspended indefinitely, and between one meeting and the next an incredible two and a half years passed. Sinead was never bitter though; for her, the family’s aversion to order spoke to a deeper truth, and one that was reflected in the community at large. “Everyone in the film, I feel, demonstrates a drive toward chaos. I think it might be a function of PTSD, but so many people I deal with were addicted to chaos and conflict, so that even simple things get complicated quickly, or they escalate. So for instance, even setting up an appointment to meet could take days, and was peppered with phone calls and mini-dramas. And I think that that dysfunction represents the broader scene, the broader message, which is that wars are very difficult to end. It’s not just about signing a peace treaty. Rather, there’s a huge amount to resolve when it comes to ending conflict. So I found that behaviour very revealing.”
Nevertheless, Sinead is quick to point out that this sense of trauma is not an exhaustive feature of Derry’s social fabric: “I’m sure that many people who are from Derry and who don’t live anywhere near Creggan or Rosemount would feel that this film does not represent their experience at all. And that’s completely reasonable, you know, because I was concentrating on a small community within a small community. And nor, I should say, do the participants in this film represent all dissident Republicanism. But nevertheless, it is true to say that Derry has suffered. There has been some investment, it has improved, and the people are very strong, but for instance the road from Derry to Belfast is a single lane most of the way, and they’re the two biggest cities in the North. Then specifically, Creggan itself is a gerrymandered constituency. It’s a huge housing estate in not great condition. And I think that people are very hurt still, by what happened to them. So while many residents of Derry might be horrified by some elements of my film, I imagine that there will also be a lot of empathy.”
Both drug abuse and suicide seem to loom large over the community O’Shea examines in her documentary, though she found it difficult to pinpoint the severity of the problems: “Anecdotal evidence isn’t the same as hard data. But we were certainly informed drugs were a major problem, and the same with suicide, which I was admittedly very surprised by. There’s a scene in the film where the family discuss a friend of Philly’s whose body was found floating in a river by a helicopter, having committed suicide. And you can see it in Majella’s face that she’s thinking, ‘Am I next? Will I get a call and have to identify my son’s body?’. Toward the end of the film Kevin Barry also talks about his suicidal thoughts, which was just devastating, because he was such a cheerful and robust personality. But of course it’s undeniable that he was witnessing terrible and traumatic things. I’m not sure what the answer is – clearly local government could and should play a role in providing damaged communities with the resources they require to improve mental health. But it’s not as if that fact isn’t recognised. There have been budgets and programs established to help different communities in the transition to a peaceful and non-sectarian society. So I suppose the question is how to do it better. It’s difficult though, because there are so many community centres working long hours, improving and maintaining the lives of the residents around them. They’re tireless, these people. I was very frequently struck by the selflessness I encountered.”
Indeed, the strength of the community’s cohesion is vividly portrayed by Sinead’s documentary. This strong interiority of a social body is not without its dangers though. The police are viewed entirely as outsiders, and some favour the brand of justice meted out by home-grown paramilitaries. To Sinead, this is only to be expected: “while I’m sure that that’s very frustrating for the current police force, unfortunately it’s understandable. The police did not always serve the community in the past, and it takes a very long time to overcome those memories. And then there’s individuals like Gary Donnelly – recently arrested in connection to the 2006 murder of Dennis Donaldson – who say that police harassment is constant still. But that, I think, is the real peace process. I mean ‘the Peace Process’ was simply an agreement to cease violence. But now, the process of peace must and has been pursued. And central to that endeavour is the attempt to re-establish trust in the police force and the government, whose sole purpose should be to help society function.”
The Audi Dublin Film Festival runs from Wednesday February 21st to Sunday March 4th.
The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid screens in the Lighthouse Cinema on Saturday February 24th at 6.30pm.
A Mother Brings Her Son to be Shot screens in the Lighthouse Cinema on Saturday March 3rd at 6.15pm.
Full programme and further details at diff.ie
Words: Tom Lordan
ADIFF: Selected Highlights
Here’s hoping its third time lucky at the Oscars for Kilkenny’s Cartoon Saloon. The Breadwinner is director Nora Twomey’s story of an Afghani girl and her struggles for a better life.
Their pedigree is flawless so expectations are vaulted.
Gala premiere on Thursday February 22 in Cineworld at 8pm
Dawson City: Frozen Time
Found-footage of a gold rush in 1896? Yes please. In 1978 a construction crew literally unearthed 533 silent film reels. Bill Morrison brings this veritable treasure trove of footage, from this Canadian town in the Yukon province called Dawson City, to the big screen.
And there’s a suitably emotive soundtrack by Sigur Rós to compliment it.
Saturday February 24 in the Lighthouse Cinema at 11am.
Life during wartime courtesy of Xavier Beauvois (Of Gods and Men), The Guardians looks at life through the lens of the women left behind as their men went to war. Set in rural France during World War 1.
Saturday February 24 in Cineworld at 6.45pm
You Were Never Really Here
Lynne Ramsey (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk about Kevin) returns to the fray with this revenge thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix. He plays a troubled man and, truly, there is no better man to play a troubled one than Joaquin. Mr Music Score ‘Jonny Greenwood’ soundtracks it also.
Monday February 26 in the Lighthouse Cinema at 8.30pm with Lynne Ramsey in attendance.
Cedric Gibbons exhibition
No, we didn’t have a clue who he was either but Cedric Gibbons was an Irishman who won 11 Oscars for his art direction with MGM on productions from Ben Hur to The Wizard of Oz. Clearly an unsung colossus. And one of us too.
Friday March 2 in the NCAD Gallery with a retrospective series of screenings in the IFI.
Words: Michael McDermott