The arresting title of Sinéad O’Shea’s grim documentary helps explain what drew the director towards the unresolved conflicts that stalk the Creggan estate on the outskirts of Derry.
O’Shea heard that one Majella O’Donnell had, indeed, made a “shooting appointment” with paramilitaries for her son Philly. The film-maker learns that the troubled young man, a habitual drug user, might have suffered more severe punishment if she hadn’t made the arrangement.
As someone later notes, the leg wound healed up and he can get about the place. "I wondered how this could have happened in the United Kingdom, " O'Shea says (slightly provocatively).
Some answers do emerge to that question, but A Mother is more of a socio-geographical snapshot than an investigative report. Over five years, O'Shea probed away at the tensions within "the community". (That word is brandished so promiscuously it ends up losing all meaning.) She uncovers a society still torn between the old republicans and the dissidents who act as a bandit police force.
In the opening interview, Philly's brother Kevin Barry shows O'Shea his gruesome collection of weapons. Like an NRA member on Twitter, he insists upon correcting his mother's errors in firearms calibration. This is not a hopeful sign.
The film does lose some focus as the film-makers move out into the wider mayhem. Making generous use of drone shots, getting by with occasionally muffled dialogue, the picture talks to Hugh Brady, a republican of uncertain current affiliation who now works in a community centre, and travels to a murky twilight meeting with the self-appointed enforcers.
We hear endless conspiracy theories about who’s in league with whom. None offers any hope of a way out.
The opening explanations of “the Troubles” – familiar from every documentary on related subjects – will offer no news for domestic viewers, but many will be surprised and depressed to learn how little life has moved on for the O’Donnell family. The film’s most chilling moment comes when Kevin Barry declares that he would welcome the return of the Troubles simply to relieve the boredom.
“This is God’s country,” Brady says early on while driving the drizzly streets. Season with irony to taste.
Opens: September 14th