30 January 2023 The Irish Film & Television Network
IFTA-winning documentarian Feargal Ward talks with IFTN
21 Jan 2021 : Nathan Griffin
Director Feargal Ward.
We caught up with Irish director and documentarian Feargal Ward to find out more about his multi-award-winning documentary The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid, developing his craft, and his advice to aspiring filmmakers.

A graduate of IADT Dun Laoghaire, Ward’s previous credits include his Reel Art-funded feature doc Tension Structures (2019); co-directed with Adrian Duncan, Joy Division music video Days of the Lord (2019); co-directed with Adrian Duncan, Arts Council-supported experimental art film Memory Room (2018); co-directed with Adrian Duncan, and his debut feature Yximalloo (2014); co-directed with Tadhg O'Sullivan, which won the Prix Premier at FID Marseille in 2014.

Directed, co-written, and filmed by Feargal Ward, The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid made its world premiere in the main completion strand at IDFA (Amsterdam). Since then it has been selected for Hot Docs Toronto, Sheffield DocFest, Zagrebdox, Documenta Madrid, Munich DokFest, and Moscow International Film Festival. The documentary has also won several awards including the George Morrison Award for Best Documentary at the 2020 IFTA Film & Drama Awards, as well as, Best Irish film at DIFF 2018, and Best Documentary at the London Irish Film Festival.

“It was a nice end to our journey with the film to receive the George Morrison Award for Best Documentary film,” Ward told IFTN when discussing his IFTA Awards win, which saw his film hold off stiff competition from Gaza, I'Dolours, Katie, The Image you Missed, and When All is Ruin Once Again. “The other films that were nominated were really good so it was a major compliment to be chosen out of such a strong field.”

Set against the backdrop of the Supreme Court legal action between Kildare farmer Thomas Reid and IDA Ireland over their attempt to seize his farm for a multinational company using a CPO (Compulsory Purchase Order), The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid is a searing examination of the tension between a high-tech, low-tax globalised Ireland and the right of an individual citizen to continue living and working the lands of his ancestors.

Ward told IFTN that the project first came about through a chance encounter when on the outskirts of Dublin when he came across an unusual old house with handwritten protest signs covering its perimeter. “I stopped to read them, at which point the owner of the house came out to see what I was doing,” Ward explained.

From this point on, Ward continued to visit Thomas and after a number of months, Reid introduced the filmmaker to the complex legal battle he was engaged in. “I was always interested in how corporate power exerts influence over state policy in countries like Ireland, and so after months of getting to know Thomas, I asked him if he would be interested in making a film about this struggle.”

Although the documentary main story elements are of a conventional and compelling nature, dealing with tropes such as David v Goliath, ancient v modern, individual rights v corporate hegemony, Ward admitted that “the task of bringing it to screen was quite difficult.”

“When creating docs without voiceovers or interviews, the ability to observe your main protagonist in conversation is usually a key element,” Ward explained. “As Thomas was a bachelor farmer living alone with no family or social network, (and filming inside the courts was obviously prohibited), we were confronted with the daunting prospect of having to make an entire feature without recourse to these devices.”

The film was co-written, edited, and sound-designed by Tadhg O’Sullivan. The film was produced by Luke McManus for FSE Films in association with Screen Ireland. “From the beginning, I was in constant conversation with my main collaborator on this project, Tadhg O’Sullivan, and from this, we decided upon making the film as a psychological portrait of our main character,” continued Ward. “With this established, it became very clear how far we could then push things.”

When asked about working with a team (DoP, sound recordist, etc.), Ward explained that a lot of the project was spent working in the field alone, recording both the sound and picture. “The nature of this film demanded a crew of one as there wasn’t enough space in Thomas’ house or head to accommodate more than me.”

“Whilst most of the time I was filming on my own, we filmed some days with a cast and crew,” Ward said when recounting his favourite moment during the production. “My producer Luke McManus went to extraordinary lengths for the costuming of our Supreme Court judges, which I believe may have involved the borrowing or stealing of wigs from actual sitting judges...”

“The day we brought the five ‘booted, suited, and wigged’ Supreme Court judges down to the farm was a particular favourite of mine. Thomas unexpectedly came out of his house just as they gathered at the gate to read his protest signs - it was a bizarre moment where fact, fantasy, and fiction seemed to collide as I observed Thomas and the judges quietly eyeing each other up for the first time,” Ward continued.

Trends in independent and mainstream cinema

“I’m quite interested in the documentary form referred to as ‘hybrid documentary’, where tropes and mechanisms traditionally found in fiction cinema are inventively appropriated for the expressed purpose of exploring greater truths in documentary cinema,” Ward told IFTN.

“There has been quite an explosion of such films in the last 10 years. Some of the work by Alma Har’el and Joshua Oppenheimer would be a good example.” Although excited by the potential associated with the hybrid trend, Ward also raised concerns about the misuse of such techniques to embellish or distort the central truths of other documentaries; something Ward said: “sits uneasily with me.”

“My thinking is that viewers should be made explicitly aware of such interventions and devices if/when they are employed,” he elaborated. “I think if this is unclear or willfully ignored, the medium’s hard-earned and vital veracity could be weakened. In an era where mainstream journalism’s credibility is relentlessly attacked and frequently undermined, I hope, for the reasons above, that documentary film doesn’t find itself subjected to a similar fate.”

When asked about directors' work that has influenced or inspired him over the years, Ward turned to Tarkovsky, Béla Tarr, Adam Curtis, and Wim Wenders, whose film he has said he could rewatch… pretty much endlessly.” In terms of Irish inspiration, Ward was hard pressed to single out individuals due to the fact that there was such a wealth of talent in Ireland at present; “especially in creative documentary, they are doing some really exceptional work these last 10 years.”

However, when asked if there was one Irish film over the last few years that he would have liked to have been involved with, Ward chose the Michael Fassbender-led Troubles drama, Hunger. I think Steve McQueen’s Hunger was one of the best films to have come from this island, Ward stated. “I am definitely overdue a rewatch of that one.”

“I also got to see Tadhg O’Sullivan’s To The Moon at DOK Leipzig late last year. I think it’s a masterwork and one that has to be seen in the cinema when they reopen (soon hopefully!),” he added.

Advice for aspiring filmmakers

What is your approach to constructive criticism and inward reflection? “I am a huge fan of work being engaged with critically; with that comes all types. I don’t think it’s a medium that you master; you just learn more by doing more,” Ward explained. “Taking on criticism and reflecting on it is an integral part of the process I think.”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career, which you’d give to aspiring directors? “I can’t remember who told me this one but it has definitely stayed with me; it’s a cinematography tip, and largely pertains to low budget / handheld documentary camerawork: Move the camera as though it weighs 10 times heavier than it actually is.”

What one piece of advice would you yourself give? “Over the years I have been trying to make films using the least amount of shots filmed / lenses used.”

Click here to read more interviews with a selection of Ireland’s leading cast and crew.

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