A Mother Brings Her Son to be Shot Review: Sinéad O’Shea presents a first person perspective on the brutal consequences of paramilitary punishment shootings that will leave you equally gobsmacked and wanting.
A Mother Brings her Son to be Shot review by Sacha Hall, June 2018.
If I told you that a teenage boy was found kneecapped in a back alley in your neighbourhood, what would your reaction be? Shock? Disbelief? Indifference? Would your opinion change if it was revealed that his mother voluntarily took her son to the assailants as a lesser punishment for local drug dealing?
Rather than hypothetical, this extraordinary and traumatically common-place incident is the catalyst for writer-director Sinéad O’Shea’s fascinating documentary. Shot over five years, O’Shea takes an unfiltered look at the O’Donnell family and the unexpected consequences of their son Philly’s ‘punishment shooting’ in Derry’s Creggan estate, Northern Ireland. It’s a film designed to shock and shock you it will.
The film begins with Derry’s answer to Seltzer’s Damien; the deceptively cherubic wee Kevin Barry O’Donnell who regales the filmmaker with a few of his favourite ‘things’. A toy box for torture-tots-in-training, Kevin Barry places his sharp crowbar (used to “whack or kill someone if you like”) aside and reaches for his favourite thing – a hatchet – used to kill point blank and “disintegrate the head and split it in half like a melon”. “Sweet!” he exclaims. But Kevin Barry is not finished; his pièce-de-résistance is his ‘torture’ weapon – a pair of bolt cutters – used to cut “somebody’s finger off if they annoy you”.
The glibness with which Kevin Barry discusses such brutal violence is something that feels so multi-generationally ingrained in Derry’s residents; a place that still abhors UK ‘interference’ and law enforcement so much that they would rather harbour dissident paramilitary groups and tolerate their crude brand of punishment than trust the cops. The distrust feels heightened when O’Shea introduces the viewers to activist Darren O’Reilly and more particularly, former IRA sympathiser Hugh Brady from the Rosemont Centre.
Interspersed with archival footage of Brady’s earlier days in ‘The Ra’, creeping drone views of the Creggan estate and observational footage of mediations with local ‘gangs’, one gets the impression that O’Shea is distrustful of Brady’s intentions. On the other hand, O’Reilly is diametrically portrayed on screen; winning his local election by a landslide to raucous applause, organising the distribution of toys and baby items to poorer families and intimately discussing his wider views on ‘punishment shootings’. “How many other societies do you know that young boys are left in back alleys with two or three bullets in their legs for selling drugs?… that’s normal in Derry” he solemnly says to the camera.
It is those four word that will sit with you long after the credits roll. What is normal for you and I in our society is so far removed from what the normal reality is for community members in Derry. It is impossible to fathom the situation Majella O’Donnell found herself in when faced with the prospect of either a kneecapping for her son’s drug dealing – a mark of shame in her community – or certain death if her son Philly, refused to accept the consequences. Her anguish and hopelessness over her decision is evident in every frame. There is regret and overwhelming shame as she watches Philly struggle to come to terms with the consequences of his actions.
Contrarily, I found it difficult to be sympathetic towards Philly who felt his punishment was too severe. His denial of culpability over the course of five years remained as strong as his love for Adidas tracksuits. As Brady opined, “Philly is an author of his own misfortune”.
Kudos to O’Shea for persevering with her story despite the roadblocks put up by the O’Donnell family throughout the years. It pays off for audiences too as we get to see a glimpse of how the family has transitioned during this period. The most remarkable change of all comes from wee Kevin Barry who, thanks to the influence of his dad Barry senior – now released from jail – and the love of a local girl, now channels his anger in the boxing ring rather than on the streets in the Creggan.
Executive-produced by The Act of Killing’s Joshua Oppenheimer, A Mother brings her Son to be Shot is full of generationally ingrained social issues that are yet to be resolved but deserves to have its conversation at the forefront. Momentary snapshots of Majella frying potatoes – an equivocal symbol of Ireland –ironically sums up these issues and of life in the Creggan estate; one that is a town struggling with simmering violence, self-policing, distrust, drug use and suicide.
It’s a polarising, conversation starting film that will leaving you questioning and wanting to know more.
A Mother brings her Son to be Shot review by Sacha Hall, June 2018.
A Mother brings her Son to be Shot was reviewed at the 2018 Sydney Film Festival.