One night, a mother takes her son to be shot in both knee caps as a punishment for drug dealing. What follows is an intense exploration of life under the shadow of armed, dissident Republican groups that control parts of the city of Derry, Northern Ireland. We explore the world of danger, politics and community through the eyes of the O’Donnell family and others in their neighbourhood over a five-year period.
A reporter and film-maker for the BBC, al-Jazeera English, the Guardian, RTE, and the Irish Times, journalist Sinéad O’Shea defies first-timer nerves in this documentary. Big time. And she certainly knows how to pick a title. A standout from the NZIFF’s documentary category based on name alone, the film was also of interest to me on a personal level. It clearly was to her as well – every second of the film is fuelled by her questioning a way of life that Derry residents have long since accepted as their lot. It’s this hopelessness that is laced throughout the movie – a feeling of being trapped by the past.
The film’s coverage of the Troubles which plagued Northern Ireland throughout the latter half of the 20th century is brief – for a documentary about a place so entangled with this history, the background given is surprisingly sparse. But therein lies some of the genius of O’Shea’s work. The world knows about the problems, and then the peace. What they don’t know is that the problems didn’t just go away, and that Derry is as much a city at war with itself as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Covering the distrust of police due to British roots and the carry-over of Republican aggression (and weapons) from those lawless days, the viewer gets a crash course in Irish history that is just enough to take them to the modern day.
The exploration of Derry’s violent present comes through the experiences of the O’Donnell family, a normal family living in a Republican-dominated suburb. The film starts in the aftermath of mother-of-three Majella’s decision to take her oldest son Philly, a local drug dealer and user, to be kneecapped by armed Republicans as a punishment for ‘being a scourge on the community’. Charting the immediate aftermath of this decision and the year’s that follow, O’Shea treats the situation with dignity, using the material available (she lost contact with the O’Donnells in two interim years) to paint a picture of a family doing the best they can in an awful place. The O’Donnells, even in their own struggles, still add an element of humanity and light relief compared with the grim day-to-day faced by other interviewees. Local community worker Hugh Brady, a former Republican himself, was a fascinating addition to the narrative, although we never really get to experience Hugh’s take on life due to how closely he guards his past. Other minor characters come and go, but it’s the O’Donnells and Hugh we are left with most of the time to help us chart Derry’s fraught waters.
O’Shea packs a lot into a brief runtime, but still manages to ponder the small details, such as a Celtic cross on a mantelpiece or eerie gaslight, anchoring us in a time and place that seems entirely alien to so many due to its violent past – but is the sad and awful present for so many.
The Irish film-maker’s journalistic sensibility shines through in this bold piece – if perhaps at the expense of her own personality and insight as narrator. But this and other minor flaws cannot take away from what is intensely stirring.
The film delivers equal parts sadness and surreality, leaving you choking in the same hopeless hold of history that plagues Derry to this day. Some minor flaws, but only as flawed as the horror of a war still being fought in a time of peace. 7.5/10.