Sinead O’Shea’s insightful and engaging feature documentary A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot is out today in Irish cinemas. Scannain caught up with the director to talk about the film.

“What would cause a Derry mother to bring her son to be shot?” O’Shea’s documentary asks that extraordinary question.

One night in 2012, Majella O’Donnell took her teenage son Philly to a laneway near to her home to be shot in the legs by local gunmen. In a shocking, intimate yet often warm and surprisingly humorous portrait of a family, A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot tells their story.

Majella, her son and the gunmen are all part of the dissident community in Derry, Northern Ireland. The Troubles in Northern Ireland was supposed to have ended in 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, but this community do not accept the government or police. To them, the war is not over, even as family life continues.

In the absence of a normal relationship with the police, dissident Republicans step in to combat a perceived drug epidemic with their own brutal form of justice. Majella was faced with an agonising choice: cooperate with a punishment shooting or risk even worse consequences for her son.

Filmed over five years by renowned journalist Sinead O’Shea (Al Jazeera English, Channel 4, The Irish Times, The New York Times, The Guardian), A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot has been described by Screen International as “fascinating and gutsy” and RTE as “shocking but unexpectedly humorous.” O’Shea’s achievement is to create profound empathy, making you question how you would have acted, even as you watch the astonishing drama unfold.

The film was nominated for the Fact Award at CPH:DOX, the Maysles Observational Documentary Award at Belfast, and Best International Documentary at EBS in Korea. O’Shea also represented the UK and Ireland as one of Europe’s top 10 female filmmakers at the Sydney Film Festival.

A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot is produced by Sinead O’Shea, Ailish Bracken and Katie Holly of Blinder Films, with Figs Jackman and André Singer of Spring Films, and Oscar-nominated Executive Producer Joshua Oppenheimer. The production and release received the support of Screen Ireland, RTÉ and Inevitable Pictures.

A Mother Brings Her Son to be Shot

Scannain: It’s great to see more women taking up the camera and directing feature dramas and feature documentaries.

Sinead O’Shea: Definitely. We need to see more of them. We need to encourage more women, especially the quieter ones. It’s the quieter ones that really have something to say a lot of the time. It’s a tricky business.

How did A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot end up being a feature, rather than a TV documentary or a series?

There were so many points were I thought that I should give up and just turn it into a shorter piece. Originally I went out thinking about a feature. I did a Masters in Film Production in DIT. I began making TV shows. I made a TV show called Sampler, which I shot and edited, and it won an IFTA. So that was a brilliant start to my career, but then Sampler was taken off air after two episodes and I couldn’t get any work in RTÉ again. So I began to move into current affairs, which is actually much better for a young woman I think. It’s a lot better regulated and it’s more facts based. You need to be so loud in film. I did that for a few years, all around the world and then I heard this story about a mother who brought her son out to be shot. I thought that it would be a great little 10  minute current affairs piece. When I went there the people were so open and welcoming and they were gold, they were amazing. It would have been a waste to stick them in some 10 minute current affairs slot. They needed time to really express themselves. So I thought, right okay I’ll make a feature documentary, which was kind of what i always wanted to do. And I would bring in my film experience and my literature background. It is a bit novelistic. The characters really build over time. That is how it went from being a 10 minute piece to being an 82 minute film. Then it took a lot longer than I anticipated. I didn’t obviously set out for it to take 5 years. But all of the participants, part of their kind of magic is that they are absolutely electrifying company but totally unreliable. And I was kind of making it on my own, just hiring camera-people or calling in favours. And every time I went there they just wouldn’t show up. Whatever I said they just would not do. It was the opposite every single time. Then the other side of it was that, with the industry being quite conservative, I didn’t have any track record as a feature maker or short film maker. All my current affairs experience didn’t really count, so that was really hard. It was really hard to make it and get financing and the to get the participants to cooperate and participate. That’s why it took 5 years.

There was a long period there where Majella and Philly wouldn’t even talk to you…

I think that because Philly was under so many threats, he’d even been accused of throwing a bottle at somebody, and it was getting really bad. They really thought that he was going to be killed. I don’t think that they were against me necessarily, but I think that they just thought that this was just another layer of hassle that they just didn’t need. And they didn’t have to do this. Which was fair enough. But it’s great in the end when you finally get to see them again. There’s this strong passing of time and they are really happy, without giving away the ending. I’ve been in contact with them a lot since we finished the film. And I showed the film to the family and they really liked it.

A Mother Brings Her Son to be Shot

Kevin Barry, Majella’s younger son, is a stand-out.

He’s actually really watered down in this. He is amazing, the best thing in it. He wasn’t meant to be in it at first. it was just meant to be about Majella and Philly. But she did keep talking about this little kid, Kevin Barry, who she was really worried about. Just the name piqued my interest. That little weapons demonstration, that was the first time that I met him and he just started doing that. He just could not stop doing amazing stuff. He’s really funny, a born entertainer, and he just can’t stop doing amazing stuff. Even though the stuff he is saying is awful, it’s just so hard not to laugh. We had a screening in Belfast at the Belfast Film Festival and people were just laughing from start to finish. When it has played at festivals abroad, people just haven’t found it as funny at all. I was doing this interview with New Zealand radio a few weeks ago and I said that people here think it’s quite funny. And he asked “do you think that it’s funny?” and I was like “yeah” and he went “What?”. He was so angry with me. I think that he thought I was so shallow and that I’d missed the tragedy, but I think that they’ve missed the humour.

The tragedy for me was the guys up there whose lives are so listless that they are actively seeking a return to The Troubles to give their lives meaning. These people have been left behind by the peace process. 

It’s pretty amazing, but it makes sense as well. They did have purpose during The Troubles, but now there’s no thought of having a meaningful job up there. There’s no thought of a job pretty much. And post traumatic stress disorder is really prevalent. They are so used to conflict that it is very difficult to live without it. I think that it makes perfect sense that somebody like Kevin Barry, who doesn’t even remember how bad it was, has this idealised image of it. It’s so macho. It’s so patriarchal. Status is everything. Everyone is totally obsessed with being the toughest guy in the neighbourhood.

And there in the middle of it all is Majella…

It’s just a nightmare. She spends her whole time trying to appease these crazy macho men. She’s quite normal. The whole society is reinforcing this norm that it’s so difficult for her to have any agency or be herself in any way.

A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot is out now in selected cinemas.

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