Writer and former BBC investigative reporter Declan Lawn writes for Culture about the acclaimed new documentary A Mother Brings her Son to be Shot, which hits Irish cinemas this weekend.
Directed by Sinead O'Shea, it tells the true story of Derry woman Majella O’Donnell who brings her teenage son, Philly, to be shot in both legs by dissident republicans.
My war gone by, I miss it so.
As a reporter in Northern Ireland for fifteen years, I spoke to many people who were affected by the conflict. Some of them perpetrated violence, and some were affected by it. Sometimes, it was both. One of the things that struck me, although I never reported it at the time, was how many people were nostalgic for the days of conflict. It was odd, how many of them seemed to remember those times with something bordering on affection. And yet it seemed too personal to report upon, somehow. Maybe even a little unsavoury; I glossed over it.
Great documentaries, though, don’t gloss over anything. They focus on where the cracks are, and take up residence there. A Mother Brings her Son to be Shot is this kind of film. It’s about many things, but to me, it’s about misplaced nostalgia, and how dangerous it can be.
The film takes place in Derry, following the fortunes of one family, the O’Donnells. It begins with a quest to understand a single incident.
Not long before the documentary begins, Majella O’Donnell accompanied her son to an appointment, where he was shot in a so-called 'punishment' attack. Majella explains the logic of her situation in a matter of fact way. Had Philly not turned up to be shot in the legs, she says, he would have been hunted down and killed. There was no other option. So late one night, Majella walked with her son to the secluded alley. She waited nearby. She heard the shots.
As her initial premise, film-maker Sinead O’Shea tells us that she simply wanted to answer one question – how could it be, that in modern Ireland, after nearly two decades of peace in Northern Ireland, a mother could bring her son to be shot?
Had Philly not turned up to be shot in the legs, she says, he would have been hunted down and killed. There was no other option. So late one night, Majella walked with her son to the secluded alley. She waited nearby. She heard the shots.
O’Shea could not have anticipated that it would take five years of filming with the O’Donnell family for her to begin to answer it. Not many documentaries take five years to film. The effect is that here, time is itself a hidden character, with its own agenda, playing its own sly tricks. Sometimes, when its power is revealed, the effect is shocking.
One character – a local community worker who guides O’Shea through the maze of streets as well as the labyrinthine politics of Derry – is diagnosed with lung cancer as she films with him. Other people in the film get older, greyer. Sadder. Over the years, some people stop talking to O’Shea Then they forget their objections, because it was so long ago, and talk to her again. Finally, there comes a point where as viewers, we realise that the events at the beginning of the film happened several years previously. The film we are watching is itself a document of the past.
All of this is both arresting, and disturbing. For instance, we meet Kevin Barry, Philly’s younger brother, when he is just 11. He is instantly endearing, all childish bravado and effervescent energy. By the end of the film he is sixteen. He’s big and burly now, and his voice has broken. He is more guarded and reticent. There’s a new bitterness about him, a certain cynicism. The energy and optimism seems to have been been squeezed out of him by these few years. His childhood is over.
Beyond the walls of the family home, Derry is changing too, day by day, and year by year. It is a long time now since it was a city at war. Philly and Kevin Barry don’t even remember those days. Even so, the past is more than just a memory. After dark, it still stalks the streets. So-called 'dissident' Republicans parade through the laneways with their weapons. They are simultaneously cartoonish and threatening. O’Shea goes out to meet them. They show off their guns, and pose like children playing soldiers. They seem almost comical, and then, in a nearby house, a woman glimpses them and breaks down in tears – it transpires these men or their associates recently killed her close relative. In an instant we jump from parody to pain.
Other people in the film get older, greyer. Sadder. Over the years, some people stop talking to O’Shea Then they forget their objections, because it was so long ago, and talk to her again.
Philly and Kevin Barry are soaking it all up. Their father is in prison for dissident republican activity. They call him a "legend". It doesn’t help that from bar stools and from sofas, the boys hear stories of the good old days. They were days of strife, certainly, and yet for some, they were also days of purpose. Kevin Barry looks around him now and sees no such purpose, and little prospects. In a shocking moment towards the end of the film, he says he wishes the Troubles would come back. Something, it is clear, has gone terribly wrong.
This film doesn’t purport to be representative of modern Derry, or Northern Ireland. It’s occupying the tiny cracks, and perhaps asking if those cracks could ever open once again. This is a film about a small group of people on the margins of their own city, which itself is on the margins of Europe. A place out on the edges, where a violent past that has been almost forgotten by the rest of the world, is still being remembered, replayed, and in some cases, longed for.
A Mother takes Her Son to be Shot shows us that in the right hands, this kind of nostalgia can be a powerful weapon. Some people know this, and they use it.
They remind people of an America that was once 'great', or a Britannia that once 'ruled the waves', or an 'armed struggle' that was once 'heroic', and suddenly, the imagined past is in control of the present. If you manipulate this misplaced nostalgia successfully enough, humans will end up doing the impossible. They will work against their own interests. They will hurt themselves and others.
They will take their sons to be shot.
A Mother Brings Her Son to be Shot is released in Irish cinemas on September 14th - director Sinead O'Shea will participate in post-screening Q&As at the Light House Cinema, Dublin on Friday, September 14th at 7pm, at Queens Film Theatre, Belfast on Saturday, September 15th at 6pm, and at Brunswick Moviebowl, Derry, on Sunday September 16th at 7pm - more details here.