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IDFA 2017

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The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid: A peculiarly poetic David vs Goliath story

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- Irish filmmaker Feargal Ward's documentary, screening at the IDFA, is a mix of a poetic approach and dramatisation in a story of a David vs the Goliath

The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid: A peculiarly poetic David vs Goliath story

Thanks to tax breaks and affordable land, IT giants like Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft have in recent years been building factories and administrative facilities in Ireland. The country's Industrial Development Authority (IDA) has been working aggressively on bringing them in, and helping them to identify the best pieces of land and to purchase them at low prices. 

Feargal Ward's first feature-length documentary, The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid, which has just world-premiered in the IDFA's main competition, tells the story of a man who declined to sell his property, consisting of a farm and an 18th-century family house in north-eastern Kildare, for €10 million to Intel to build their new factory on. 

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Thomas Reid is a fifty-something hermit and hoarder, stuck in a bygone era. Living alone in his stone house filled to the brim with everything from old newspapers, VHS tapes and records to (used and torn) black plastic hay wraps, Reid takes care of his herd of cows, listens to the radio and cooks €2.50 frozen dinners on an open fire. With a bowl haircut, which he doubtlessly fashioned himself, a visible lack of teeth and hazy, wandering eyes, he certainly looks like an easy target for a corporation and the government… 

But after the IDA served him with a compulsory purchase order, Reid took the case to the High Court, where he lost, and then on to the Supreme Court. Basing their work on court transcripts, Ward and co-writer Tadhg O’Sullivan staged these proceedings with actors in the protagonist's yard. The judge, lawyers and IDA officials (the latter portrayed as especially sleazy) are surrounded by old farming equipment and rusty pipes as they discuss the case, which gives a surreal quality to the film, and cleverly avoids the tedium of documentary courtroom scenes.

Ward's visual approach is handsome, soft and almost dreamy. He films Reid in his home as he shuffles through the shadows cast by piles of decades-old junk, or against the afternoon light as he takes care of the animals on the farm, or trailing after him as he buys his frozen ready meals and bananas (whose sticker labels he will keep) in a supermarket. 

This decision takes us into the strange and, indeed, lonely world of Thomas Reid, bringing us closer to what drives him, rather than potentiating the economic and political theme, and its strong dimension of civil rights. But this is exactly why these issues have a deeper impact on the viewer, as they simmer below the blurry surface of the protagonist's singular perspective.  

The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid is a beautiful film to watch, where the visuals (Ward is also the film's DoP) are finely complemented by the editing rhythm (courtesy of O'Sullivan), and the questions that it deals with, including its protagonist, are revealed from an original and peculiar angle, highlighting unexpected details. 

The film was produced by Dublin-based FSE Films with funding from the Irish Film Board and co-produced with the Hamburg-based TV station NDR.

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