A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot: a title at once provocative and perverse. If audience members remain in any way confused about what they are about to see, the violence and incongruity suggested in the title is quickly confirmed by the film’s opening sequence. A baby-faced preteen, Kevin Barry O’Donnell, explains to the documentary crew how various weapons can be utilised to maim and murder, plunging viewers headfirst into post-peace-process Derry, home of a community in which paramilitary forces take the law into their own hands and, in which giving young people a ‘fright’, is considered a reasonable way to encourage appropriate behaviour.
The film addresses its title head on with the aid of interviewee, Majella O’Donnell. It is with sadness and resignation that she recalls her son Philly O’Donnell being shot in the legs as a punishment for his involvement with drugs. The physical wounds have healed but the psychological effects of living in their community have had debilitating effects on Philly. Majella believes her decision to bring her son to be shot was a way of protecting her son from further harm but as his mental state deteriorates and his situation worsens she is confronted by the implications of her actions.
Writer-director Sinéad O’Shea began her investigation into punishment shootings, and their long-term effects, as part of a short-term project which became a 5-year-long documentary shoot. In the film, O’Shea develops a tumultuous relationship with the O’Donnell family: at certain times she has intimate access to the family, while at others she is denied all contact with them. Upon re-entering the O’Donnell home after a particularly long period of silence, Majella remarks that the film crew is back to ‘torture’ the family again, which seems significant considering the substantial physical and psychological grievances that the family have suffered at the hands of their community.
O’Shea contextualises the plight of the O’Donnell family within the broader framework of the peace process and the Troubles. She highlights the strong connection between suicide and young people left behind after the violence and mayhem of the Troubles. Towards the end of the film, Kevin Barry, an older version of the young weapon expert who opens it, claims to regret that the Troubles are over. The situation is multi-layered and complicated but at the film’s centre is a portrait of a family with limited options and a community that is in crisis.
A Mother Brings her Son to Be Shot is compelling, challenging and at times chilling. It dives deep into the often disturbing realities that are commonplace in Derry in the aftermath of the peace process. The Troubles may be over but this film asks its audience to re-examine what this means for those who live in its wake.