'A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot': Film Review

An eye-opener with room for improvement.

Sinead O'Shea's doc finds an Irish community where the Troubles never really ended.

A documentary that could easily share the name of another film at this year's Bergen fest — Dheeraj Akolkar's Wars Don't End — Sinead O'Shea's look at the continuing IRA influence in Derry, Northern Ireland, instead wears a tabloid-ready, bracingly literal title: A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot. Looking at the aftermath of one nearly unthinkable act, first-time filmmaker Sinead O'Shea doesn't really offer enough evidence to convince us the episode is emblematic of this conflict-haunted region. The film will, though, open eyes for Stateside viewers who'd like to believe the Troubles ended two decades ago with the Good Friday Agreement.

What definitely happened: In April 2012, Derry resident Majella O’Donnell drove her son Phil Junior to a place mysterious men had told her to go. She let him out of the car and watched, knowing those men were going to shoot him (twice, in the leg, it turns out). She believed it was her only choice, since the men promised they'd do much worse if she didn't cooperate.

O'Shea never asks what Phil thought was going on that night. And if she seems not to wonder how he has processed his mother's betrayal, perhaps that's proof of how firmly those men control what goes on around here. They're affiliated with one or more splinter groups of the Irish Republican Army, and have cast themselves as armed authorities in places we're told police are still afraid to go. Phil had been a thorn in their side, badmouthing the IRA on social media and selling drugs.

Starting the film at the O'Donnell household, O'Shea interviews Majella and her youngest son, the frighteningly spirited 11-year-old Kevin Barry. The latter walks us through his arsenal of crowbars, hatchets and other makeshift weapons, happily describing the lethal capacities of each. The boys' father is in prison for a crime the film won't identify until later, and that fact clearly animates their anti-social tendencies.

O'Shea then ventures out to the community, spending the most time with Hugh Brady, a onetime IRA member who spent around 16 years in prison before leaving the group and becoming an intermediary. He claims he and his colleagues have resolved around 96 percent of disagreements between townfolk and the gun-toting "dissident Republicans." While he clearly sees problems in having paramilitary groups mete out punishment to local drug dealers, he's also sure the government hasn't done nearly enough to revive this area after decades of strife.

Well into the film, after an especially dramatic moment with Brady, O'Shea says in voiceover that it's "impossible to know" if what he says is the truth or an exaggeration. That's a puzzling comment coming from a journalist, especially one who has spent five years on this film. O'Shea offers no interviews with local reporters, cops, or historians; she offers no hard data, save for one arresting statistic: Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, she says, the suicide rate in Derry has been twice what it was beforehand.

That would seem to bolster Phil's talk of his generation's hopelessness, and his feeling that the militiamen "keeping the peace" are really just extorting drug dealers, letting them be so long as they cough up some cash. Then again, Phil believes everyone is in on some corrupt scheme, and as we observe the brothers five years down the road, they're clearly too mentally ill to take seriously. Then dad gets out of jail, and Majella convinces herself things are looking sunny. Viewers are unlikely to share her optimism.

Production companies: Blinder Films, SOS Films
Director-screenwriter: Sinead O'Shea
Producers: Ailish Bracken, Figs Jackman, Sinead O'Shea
Executive producers: Edward Dallal, Katie Holly, Joshua Oppenheimer, Andre Singer
Editor: Enda O'Dowd
Composer: George Brennan
Venue: Bergen International Film Festival

87 minutes