When Kevin Barry O’Donnell is introduced to us, it comes as a shock as this child, who can’t be more than thirteen, explains how tools such as a hammer, saw, and axe, can be used as weapons. The mother and son that the film title refers to are his mother, Majella O’Donnell, and older brother, Philly, and in this documentary, shot over a period of five years, we learn just how the titular incident occurred, what its aftermath was on the family, and how the event reflects wider politics in contemporary Northern Ireland.
‘A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot’ looks at what has happened in Derry following the Troubles and Good Friday Agreement. Primarily it is concerned with how in a place where the police have little support, the community takes action against those exhibiting anti-social behaviour. One of the vigilantes’ victims is Philly, whose mother took him to be shot in the legs when it was threatened that he would be killed if he wasn’t punished.
As well as Majella, Philly and Kevin Barry – the latter of whom is truly frightening, at one point gleefully detailing to his shaken mother the different types of guns and bullet wounds – other figures we are introduced to who reflect the times include Hugh Brady, a former IRA member now working with the Rosemount research centre, whose job is to mediate between armed dissident groups and the individuals they deem problematic. We also meet Darren O’Reilly and follow his campaign as an independent candidate running for Derry County Council, but the film’s emotional pivotal hook remains the O’Donnell family.
The system that has developed in Derry – where people don’t report IRA incidents for fear of being deemed an informer, and where so-called ‘punishment shootings’ are accepted as part of life – seems bats**t crazy to us, but it is the reality. The conflicting accounts given by every documentary subject shows them all trying to push their own agenda. Such different perspectives are hard to reconcile and there is no resolution in sight, no solution that suits everyone. Certainly the use of violence is causing more harm than good, as reflected by the alarming documentation of suicide rates in Derry.
The director behind the film, Sinéad O’Shea, has made an extraordinary film that packs much discernment and information into a film that is only about 80 minutes long. She herself features in the documentary in an investigative journalist role, and does an excellent job of knowing what questions to ask to get people to start to open up, and knowing when she can push that bit further to get more in-depth answers. This cannot be an easy task given the hazardous nature of the place she is in and people she is surrounded by.
What O’Shea has given us is an eye-opening, rattling insight into modern-day Northern Ireland, where few outside the place realise that the war is far from over.