Over five years, as Navan native film maker Sinead O’Shea was embarking on motherhood herself, she was working on an extraordinary project about a mother who brought her son the be shot, in a Northern Ireland community.
The unimaginable story is not that out of place in the dissident republican community in Derry, which “doesn’t take account of the police, and doesn’t believe in the police, or in the authority of the police,” Sinead says.
“It is self-rule to a large extent. If you are seen or perceived to be out of line, then you can be subjected to different punishments. Some people are banished from a community, and only allowed back at certain times in a year, or not allowed back at all; some are shot, and in extreme cases, there can be killings.
Sinead is at pains that the film, ‘A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot’ certainly doesn’t represent all of Derry, a city which worked very hard to accept the Good Friday Agreement.
“But it does represent a community within Derry which isn’t as small as people think it is,” she continues.
“There is a piece in the film about the local elections where all the dissident community republican candidates come first within their own communities and top the polls within their own areas.”
One night in 2012, Majella O’Donnell took her teenage son, Philly, to a laneway near her home to be shot in the legs by a local gunman, following perceived drug dealing. Working on a Northern Irish project is almost coming full circle for the Navan woman, whose very first film report she made for the Al Jazeera English network in London was in the North of Ireland, on the future of Sinn Fein, in 2006.
As a young film graduate, she had gone to work in London, as she found it hard to work as a film maker in Ireland at the time, “and I don’t think it was that helpful to be a woman at that point.”
Sinead O'Shea is a daughter of Olivia and Seamus O'Shea, formerly of Alexanderaide, Navan. PHOTO:CONOR HORGAN
Her interest in journalism began at school in Loreto in Navan, when the Alexanderaide native and her friend, Sinead Maguire (now Cllr Sinead Burke) were youth reporters for the Weekender Newspaper. She was always mixing a love of English and history, and won some early letter writing and history essay competitions. After studying English at Trinity College, Dublin, she went to San Francisco on a J1 visa.
“And while I was there I realised I had no life plan at all,” she says.
“I decided to make a documentary about all the people around who were working as waiters and waitresses, but really wanted a career doing something else. I wasn’t in it – but in retrospect, it was probably all about – more about me than the other people,” she says.
It wasn’t very good, she adds, but was enough to get her into DIT Aungier Street to study a masters in film production.
“Then I became much more interested in drama and filmmaking and cinematography. I made two student shorts which were in film festivals, and wanted to become a director of photography.”
With some others, she began shooting and editing a TV series, ‘Sampler’, which Sinead says had “some small success” - it won an IFTA.
“But it was taken off after two episodes, because we hadn’t made it according to union regulations at the time, as we had shot it ourselves on digital equipment.
“It was a bit of a triumph to have won an IFTA – but no one got to see it , it was an unusual success!”
It was after this she took off for London, and Al Jazeera’s newly opened English service, launched at the end of 2006.
“I was able to shoot and direct and produce lots of film reports - I did over 100 over the next few years. From Yemen, Morocco, Eritrea, Portugal, Spain, Serbia and Poland.”
A lot of this work was undercover, investigative work, and she also worked for BBC Newsnight, as well as on an environmental series for Al Jazeera.
She returned to Dublin, working for the Irish Times and setting up their audio section from 2013 to 2015, before a stint with the New York Times.
It was while working on that very first report in Northern Ireland over a decade ago that she interviewed Marion Price, and it was through Price and her counterparts that she came to meet Majella O’Donnell, the subject of her current work. She was put in contact with dissident republican community negotiater, Hugh Brady, “an exceptionally compelling interesting character” who introduced her to Majella.
“She had just brought her son to be shot two months before I met her,” Sinead says. “Her family was going through a lot of volatility. Her husband was in jail. Her eldest son was in jail. Philly, the son she brought to be shot, was furious and very damaged by what had happened.
“Her other son, Kevin Barry, is an unexpected presence in the film, he’s very interesting. When I started filming he was just 11 years old, and over the course of the film we see him grow up and it’s quite a mad journey.
Majella’s decision to bring Philly to be shot is just the starting point of the film, Sinead explains.
“It then becomes a portrait of the whole community and how it self-regulates and sorts out its own problems and has its own solutions. It’s an exploration of how that actually works, and on a smaller scale, what happens the O’Donnell family in the aftermath of bringing Philly to be shot, because that doesn’t at all solve the problem it was trying to address. The threats continue, and there are more twists on the road before resolution.”
It has been a long road too for Sinead to get the film finished, as she points out that while journalism can pay its way, it is not that easy to finance creative work like filmmaking, art or writing.
Following sold-out screenings at London, Dublin, Glasgow and Belfast International Film Festivals, CPH:DOX, Copenhagen, the Galway Film Fleadh, New Zealand and Sydney Film Festivals, the film is set for nationwide Irish and Northern Irish release on 14th September.
The film was nominated for the Fact Award at CPH:DOX, the Maysles Observational Documentary Award, Belfast, and Best International Documentary at EBS, Korea. Sinead represented the UK and Ireland as one of Europe’s top 10 female filmmakers at the Sydney Film Festival.
A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot is released nationwide on 14th September.
A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot is produced by Sinead O’Shea, Ailish Bracken and Katie Holly of Blinder Films with Figs Jackman and André Singer of Spring Films and Oscar-nominated Executive Producer Joshua Oppenheimer. The production and release received the support of Screen Ireland, RTÉ and Inevitable Pictures.
There will be a Q&A with Sinead O’Shea after the Opening Night screening on the 14th September at the Light House Cinema, Dublin and in the Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast on 15th September.