The men in ski masks and flak jackets are taking longer than expected to enter from the alleyway. At the end of a row of blank, silent houses, journalist Sinead O’Shea (al-Jazeera English, The New York Times) is waiting to meet a local paramilitary member, a one-off meeting set up by a local intermediary (and former IRA member). The wait, of course tense, is also oddly comical. A handful of the paramilitary men round buildings, backs to walls and guns raised, as if Derry in Northern Ireland is, at that very moment, under siege. The brash and clunky show of force comes to an end minutes later, after their leader decides not to give the journalist any comment. They snake back into the night. The porch lights are turned on and the relieved chatter of neighbours fills the air.
This awkward scene teetering on the edge of violence is in keeping with much of A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot, an impressive and intimate look at the impact of paramilitary violence in Derry. It began as a news package profiling Majella O’Donnell, a matriarch who strikes an unusual deal with a local armed group to save her son: he avoids death or paralysis if she takes him to be shot in the legs and if she ensures he’s exiled to Belfast indefinitely. The incident is recounted both from the perspective of Majella and Phillip Jr, the son who was shot (he speaks with her sitting beside him), but the bizarre tale takes up only the first ten or so minutes of the documentary. The substantial remainder results from a desperate need for wider context for the incident and also the intermittent access given to O’Shea by her subjects.
The film took five years to make, the shooting schedule dictated by subject availability and O’Shea’s tenacity. Some months the family wants to talk, explain and rationalise, and other months they want nothing to do with the film. This withdrawal sees O’Shea speak to locals connected to Derry’s Rosemount Resource Centre, home to bingo, pool and paramilitary negotiations. What results are some eclectic narrative threads, which span the reliance on internal drug accusations for intra-group policing to the seeming ineffectiveness of the local political process. Take, for example, a de facto guidance counselor at Rosemount who is presented as one of the most noble and selfless Derry locals. Past halfway, we see him running for representative office, leaving the Centre behind under the banner of creating real community change. After his electoral win, we watch as he embraces a suspected paramilitary leader. We never see him again.
The uncertainty of forward progress is felt both within and without the film: O’Shea and editor Enda O’Dowd can’t maintain the pace and engagement of the first half hour, as much more time passes as the film nears its end, requiring intertitles and diversions. These gaps are as much reflective of the instability of narratives about power and control in Derry as they are a persistent reminder of the struggles of independent reportage, especially when criminal involvement is essential to the story.
In the absence of effective throughlines about politics and history, we cling to recurring images and phrases, whether the abrupt and shocking age leap for Kevin Barry, the youngest of Majella’s children, who ends up a spitting image of his older brother Phillip Jr, or in the presence of Che Guevara, whose image adorns shirts, arms, murals and posters, perhaps even eclipsing the fervour bestowed upon IRA activist Bobby Sands.
The collective memory of the Troubles, which ended when the Good Friday Agreement came into effect in late 1999, has become the product of myth-making for the young men of Derry, many of whom serve in one of the innumerable local paramilitary groups. The conflict rages on in the cultural imaginary. A mural seen late in the film equates the conflicts in Derry today (which seems mostly led by paramilitary groups ostensibly fighting for reunification) with mass violence in Palestine and police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri. Young people in the town seem obsessed with conflict and violence; the young Kevin Barry shows us his weapon collection in the film’s opening minutes. When Majella is asked about it, she says she doesn’t know why he’s this way. Phillip Jr. offers up an explanation: “films”. One can imagine the film’s executive producer, The Act of Killing director Joshua Oppenheimer, taking particular interest in that answer.
The documentary echoes its characters in suggesting that, 20 years on, the people of Derry are worse off than they were during the Troubles.1 The police patrol the streets in armoured trucks and seem to rarely get out of them; law and order is outsourced to mostly unaccountable militias. When Phillip Jr. says early on that the groups, which justify their violence as preventing drug addiction in the community, have been profiting off of those drugs, it comes off as paranoid ramblings of an addict in denial. Years later, when Kevin Barry makes the same claim, we’ve seen enough to know it seems inescapably true.
The film presents a damning and devastating view of a town fully resigned to the horrors of their circumstances. The two decades of simmering rage, in which every community grievance feels like a rebuke of the peace process, shows no signs of abating. The government shows little interest in Derry either. All that seems to matter to those who live there is maintaining a family unit, less out of affection than blind loyalty and pragmatism.
What sticks with me most from the film is a repeated line that acts as an unintended equation. Phillip Jr, when referring to the inability of the Northern Ireland police to stop the paramilitary groups, laughs and says “that’s life”. Hugh Brady, the local mediator and powerbroker, after finding out about his lung cancer diagnosis and low chance of survival, says exactly the same. The takeaway, an inherently fatal lack of control that permeates the personal and political, is as bleak as they come.
Disclosure: Conor Bateman was on the Film Advisory Panel for the 2018 Sydney Film Festival.