School of Communications, Dublin City University, Ireland
Feargal Ward’s work to date has manifested an artistic sensibility often informed by a distinctly political consciousness. Working frequently with Tadgh O’Sullivan (as cinematographer / editor or more recently as co-directors), the pair seem drawn to spaces of conflict. These tensions may be overt – as in their self-financed observational short “Boxing” (2008) about Arbour Hill pugilists – or tacitly present, as in their acutely observed Arts Council-funded project “Bow Street”, a location in Dublin 7 where legal eagles from the Law Library and Four Courts daily cross paths with those reliant on the Capuchin Day Centre for Homeless People and where the shiny new apartments developed in Smithfield during the boom overshadow the much more modest two-up, two-down houses built in the early 20th century. The hypnotic “This Land 1970-1979” (2013), a collaboration with artist Adrian Duncan, takes archive footage and re-presents it in a decontextualized fashion to mediate on how the national broadcaster represented the nation back to itself during the 1970s, highlighting the contrast between the official contemporary narratives built around leading politicians and captains of industry and the sometimes less-than-straightforward manner in which they conducted their affairs. More recently, and anticipating an era of Trump, the Tadgh O’Sullivan-directed (with Ward again as DOP) “The Great Wall” (2015) used Kafka’s short story “The Building of the Great Wall of China” as a starting point to explore the manner in which Fortress Europe has emerged presenting figurative and literal barriers to the ethnically othered at a moment of unprecedented global migration.
Ward’s work with O’Sullivan eschews shrill ideological declarations, preferring instead to construct careful political mosaics for the audience. Nonetheless, their adherence to a progressive political stance is fairly clear, offering as they do a critique of the manner in which international capital seeks unfettered access to global markets while constraining the freedom of individuals (especially peoples of colour) to enjoy similar mobility. Their films build these argument through constantly mobile (though not restless) camerawork endlessly reframing their subjects, altering their relationships with their surroundings, and discouraging the viewer from adopting a settled, definitive perspective. Their work often throws sound and vision into counterpoint, pictures refuting dialogue and vice versa.
Given all this, Ward’s decision to essay the David-vs-Goliath narrative of Thomas Reid, a lone individual pitted against the massed forces of the Irish state (represented by the IDA) and international capital (here represented by Intel) was never likely to adopt an expository mode, combining voice-of-god narration with “he said, she said” talking head interviews. Even if that had been Ward’s preference, Reid’s singular nature might have made such an approach impossible.
Reid’s crusade commenced in November 2012, when the IDA moved to exercise their authority under the 1986 Industrial Development Act to compulsorily acquire his 72-acre farm adjacent to Intel’s massive facility in Leixlip, Co Kildare. This followed on their extensive attempts to convince Reid, whose family had resided on the land for more than a century, to voluntarily sell the land to them. Reid challenged the order but, in 2013, the High Court found that the IDA was acting within its powers, thereby apparently copperfastening the compulsory purchase order (CPO).
Feargal Ward first encountered the farmer after Reid filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, arguing that the CPO violated the strong personal property rights accorded to individuals by the constitution. Drawn by the signs Reid had erected around his land protesting at the IDA’s CPO, Ward spent months cultivating his trust, literally chatting to him over the wall until Reid invited him in and agreed to be filmed.
The result is a meditative but compelling portrait of a unique figure. Those who know the film only by its poster which places Reid front and centre might be forgiven for mistaking it for an Herzog-esque medieval drama. In appearance Reid seems to stem from another era, sporting an apparently self-administered heavily-fringed haircut and presenting a stolid, largely silent countenance to the world. Ward reveals a man who lives an almost feudal existence: though presenting an bucolic image of the land surrounding the farm and Reid’s close relationship with his small herd of cattle, the immediate impression is one of an economically non-viable smallholding in terminal decline. Images of abandoned – but not discarded – and decaying machinery depicts weeds growing through old car footwells, as nature re-asserts itself against technology and modernity. Reid’s way of life seems both economically unsustainable though – in contrast to the environmental footprint left by his immediate neighbour Intel – ecologically sound, his organic connection to the land and to his individually-named livestock makes almost no impact on his surroundings. This sense is amplified where the camera enters the interior of Reid’s home, a space largely cut off from the outside world. Even an electrical connection seems absent as we witness Reid preparing frozen food in self-contained gas-powered stove. A hoarder, Thomas literally lives in the past, surrounded by decades of possessions: going through record albums he singles out the Boomtown Rats first single “Looking after No. 1”. (In a comedic interlude we later hear him ringing KFM to request they play Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going to Take It”). He reads papers from the 20th century as if they were current. But these papers are vital to his battle, constituting both a record and evidence of the nefarious doings he ascribes to Intel. (At one point, as he surveys the cadaver of a dead rabbit, he suggests that local wildlife and livestock began mysteriously dying after a period of air and soil contamination following on the initial construction of the Intel plant. Later, when one of his cattle dies, the film leaves open the possibility that this is also somehow connected to Intel’s looming presence). Addressing his reluctance to discard his hoard, Thomas explains that he has a mapping system that tidying would disrupt. The effect is to emphasize the fragility of his position: he sits atop a House of Cards where removing one element would see the whole edifice collapse.
But try as he might to keep it at bay, the outside world is encroaching: earthmoving machinery is visible and audible beyond his fence and wall. Drone shots track past the boundaries of Intel’s land across the road and into Reid’s 72 acres, emphasizing their proximity. His one concession to modernity – the voice of radio – transmits the commonsense cant of the contemporary Ireland into this private realm. This tends to echo the discourse favoured by representatives of the state. In an early sequence, Thomas is doorstepped by the men from the IDA insisting on the critical strategic importance of his land for the larger Irish economy. As they speak, Ward’s roaming camera detaches their words from their speech highlighting their bland rehearsal of – to Ward at least – meaningless corporative speak: “key strategic…Foreign Direct Investment…lands have been identified as most appropriate…large scale capital investment…critical path land problems”. When Thomas dogmatically informs them that the land is not for sale, they persist: “We really need you to facilitate us”. As framed by the documentary, the implication is clear: if you don’t deal with us, other, perhaps less polite forces, can be brought to bear.
That the film is unapologetically on Reid’s side in this conflict seems obvious. In one sequence we listen to an IDA representative express delight during a radio interview about Intel’s decision to locally manufacture a new processor which has been designed in Ireland (referring in passing to how the instrumentalization of government policy, third level training and IDA activity have contributed to this outcome). However, the accompanying visual shows Thomas reading a newspaper headline “€13bn” where the “B” is replaced with Apple Computers’ corporate logo, a reference to the European Commission finding that Apple’s tax arrangements in Ireland amounted to state aid worth €13bn. Without belabouring the point, the film identifies how bodies like the IDA can routinely access the public sphere via mass media and shape/frame public debate around conflicts with figures like Thomas Reid. On the radio, the mainstream discourse emphasises the role of global capital as significant employers in Ireland while sidelining their serial tax evasion. In effect then, the documentary works to bring some – albeit belated – balance to the struggle between the IDA and Thomas. (Indeed the film tacitly acknowledges that Thomas’s otherworldly demeanour might render him a less than compelling advocate of his own case.)
Yet, give the particular responsibility to truth faced by documentary film, one might still raise questions about some of the choices made the filmmakers in making their (and Reid’s) case. Ward’s film is not above some conflation of temporally distinct events for political impact. For instance, while it is implied that Reid is listening to the IDA executive interview while reading about the Apple decision, the two events occurred three years apart, the interview (relating to the announcement of Intel’s Quark processor) being broadcast in 2013 long before the European Commission’s 2016 ruling on Apple’s tax obligations.
Then there is the question of the film’s extensive – but not always explicit or signalled – use of reconstruction and intervention in constructing the profilmic content. The latter is less problematic and clearly signalled and undertaken for poetic effect. One sequence sees Reid confronted by his own image across an array of flatscreen televisions as he walks past the audiovisual aisle in a local hypermarket.
With regard to the restaging of events, director Ward’s relatively belated involvement with Reid’s narrative and Reid’s taciturn nature probably made some reliance on reconstruction inevitable. The film does directly interview Reid but his responses are elliptical, tending to drift down tangential cul-de-sacs, rarely offering a coherent narrative.
However, as a corrective for this, the manner in which the documentary deploys reconstruction is inconsistent and the distinction between filming of what Bill Nichols refers to as “the social world” (i.e. spontaneous pro-filmic events from the real world) and reconstructions is always clear. At one extreme, denied the opportunity to film the various court proceedings, the film chooses to restage them within the confines of Reid’s own land using court transcripts as a source for dialogue. This leads to the incongruous sight of lawyers, judges and witnesses (or the actors playing them) delivering their words atop hay bales in open fields. The resulting sequences both undercut the artificial solemnity of the legal environment but also, by situating these scenes on Reid’s actual land, operate to emphasize the real-world significance of the often dry court proceedings. However, these sequences are manifestly reconstructed. Elsewhere this is far less obvious. When IDA representatives first arrive on Thomas’s land to directly plead with him to consider selling his land, such is the verisimilitude of the scene that at least one viewer found himself asking how the production had secured their consent to be filmed. Hard on the heels of the dawning realisation that the IDA men are in fact actors, comes the recognition that Reid himself is consciously participating in the artifice, essentially playing himself. Given his Kaspar Hauser-like otherworldly representation in the elsewhere part of the film, this comes as something of a surprise, suggesting that far from the holy fool the film presents him as he is an active agent in the construction of a narrative – that of the documentary – that will support his case. (Although it should be noted that it’s unclear as to whether this sequence was shot after the Supreme Court decision which constitutes the film’s climax). The viewer is offered no independent corroboration that the exchange took place in the manner depicted in the film or even that it occurred at all. Presumably it is derived from Reid’s own – hardly disinterested – account of it even if the language placed in the voices of the actors playing the IDA figures plausibly echoes that used in court transcripts and very possibly in written communications to Reid from the IDA. Indeed, on that point, another sequence shows Thomas arriving home to – somewhat ominously – find a letter from the IDA taped to his front door. On reflection it seems likely that the too is a reconstruction but so seamlessly does the sequence fit into the poetic flow of the rest of the film that its artifice is almost impossible to identify on first viewing.
These caveats are more than minor quibbles but they do not they fatally undermine the ultimate impact of the documentary. In a last minute twist – one genuinely surprising to viewers unfamiliar with the real-life outcome – Reid emerges victorious when Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the IDA had exceeded their powers in making the Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO). Against all the odds, the little guy outsider not merely defeats the massed forces of state and capital but leaves them with a bloody nose when full costs in the region of €1.4m are awarded against the IDA. Yet even here, in an apparent bid to sustain the good guy/bad guy narrative, the film somewhat fudges the basis for the Supreme Court decision. The final reconstruction appears to suggest that the court’s siding with Reid was motivated by a perception that the IDA had acted in bad faith by failing to acknowledge that they only moved to compulsorily acquire the property after Intel had been unsuccessful in their own bid to directly acquire the land from Reid. In other words, the IDA had deceitfully sought to disguise Intel’s involvement in the purchase. In point of fact, while it appears that the IDA may have been less than upfront in this regard, the Supreme Court’s judgement appears to suggest that it was precisely the failure to identify an industrial user who would ultimately benefit from the acquisition that meant that the IDA had overreached the authority accorded to them by the 1986 Industrial Development Act. In other words, if the IDA had been open about acquiring the land for Intel (assuming this was in fact their intention) then the Supreme Court decision might well have upheld that of the High Court. This interpretation of the judgement suggests incompetence rather than malice as the primary reason for the IDA’s loss in court. Furthermore, although the final sequence refers to the “bias” on the part of the IDA it does not clarify that this relates to the fact that then IDA chairman Liam O’Mahony was simultaneously a director of the consultancy firm which had recommended to the IDA that Reid’s lands were the most suitable for purchase.
Yet to critique on these grounds is to judge it by the standards of the expository documentary which, having raised a question, would generally be at pains to find as close to a definitive answer as possible. If Ward’s film Is clearly not in that mould, one might ask whether it even constitutes a documentary at all? It may be better to understand it as a poetic, political intervention, one intended to provoke reflection on national priorities rather than offer possibly spurious definitive accounts. Certainly, if the film is somewhat opaque regarding the specific rationale informing Reid’s ultimate victory, the timing of its release has amplified its broader political message regarding where the priorities of the Irish state lies. As the scale of the housing crisis has augmented in recent years, the film clearly depicts how the state’s apparent unwillingness and/or incapacity to secure land and property in order to address the housing crisis stands in stark contrast to the speed and agility with which it sought to acquire Thomas Reid’s lands.
And in a disheartening coda to the film, April 2018 saw the signing into law of new CPO legislation strengthening the hand of the state in a manner which might make future Thomas Reids or even Thomas Reid himself less likely to prevail in their struggles to retain their homes.