Sinéad O’Shea is a filmmaker and journalist. She has made films and reports for the BBC, Al Jazeera English, “The Guardian,” RTE and “The Irish Times.”
Ahead of the European Film Promotion and Sydney Film Festival’s initiative “Europe! Voices of Women in Film,” Tara Karajica talks to Sinéad O’Shea about women in Film and her latest film, “A Mother Brings Her Son to be Shot,” the story of a loyal mother and her two sons, that is screening at the festival.
You wrote in your 15/03/2018 article published in The Guardian, “I have made films all over the world bu ton my doorstep found a story that was more compelling tan anything I’d ever previously encountered.” How did A Mother Brings Her Son to be Shot come about?
Sinéad O’Shea: Well, at the time I was making films with Al Jazeera English. I was working on two series with them, People and Power, and Earthrise which filmed all over the world, but then I heard of this story which was so much closer to home – Derry is about a 4h drive from where I live.
But I knew the headline only and wasn’t sure how to find out more. One of my first films for Al Jazeera English had featured an interview with a very iconic dissident Republican, Marion Price. I asked her people if they could recommend somebody to help me with this story. Eventually, I was put in touch with Hugh Brady who was the mediator between the shooters and the families who were bringing their children to these punishment shootings.
As soon as I started talking to him, I had the feeling that this could be a feature documentary. My training was in film production and I had always wanted to make a feature. Hugh was very compelling and very comfortable on camera. I met Majella shortly afterwards, and both she and her story were so extraordinary.
So, in one way, it was a very organic process or it was at the start, but then both the access and the financing became incredibly difficult. The former is outlined out of necessity in the film; I’ve spared you all the sorry tale of the financing.
How has your job as a journalist informed your filmmaking in this particular film and in general?
S.O.S: For this film, it began as a potential journalistic project, but then as I’ve just described, I had the feeling that it was a bigger story and that it needed to be told in a different way. However, I think journalism is a very complementary career to filmmaking in general. Obviously, they’re both forms of story telling. As a journalist, you’re constantly encountering interesting people and situations. Journalists also need to be able to summarise a lot of information into a comprehensible, engaging story. I think both journalists and filmmakers are very preoccupied with capturing the truth of something, the essence. They have more in common with each other than many other types of work.
Can you talk about Marjella O’Donnell, the mother who takes her son to be shot, as a (desperate) mother and woman?
S.O.S: She’s very interesting. I think she has a very complex relationship with her own agency, but I think a lot of women do. In short, she did the best she could. She’s very charming and funny too which I don’t know if you always see in the film. I showed her the film recently and it was a very mad experience. She burst into tears at one point, but she also found it very funny too.
I don’t know, it’s hard to express everything about one person. The film is nearly everything that I want to say.
Your investigations are utterly disturbing yet highly compelling. How was the research process, and then, the shooting?
S.O.S: Well, the researching and shooting was all quite mixed up because most of the time I was trying to shoot but wasn’t able to for various reasons, so I ended up spending huge amounts of time in Derry in the company of the film’s subjects and just watching and listening. It was probably to the benefit of the film, but it felt quite frustrating at times.
Would you agree with the description of you as a “brilliantly determined filmmaker”?
S.O.S: Ha. It’s a compliment I suppose. I think you have to be extremely determined on any feature project. They’re often a test of determination rather than ability. The logistics were difficult on this. The family didn’t want to participate any further after a time. There was no financing. I had a full time job for a lot of it and a small baby and because the access was so mercurial I ended up wasting a lot of precious time and money. I had people, even some cameramen, tell me that it was a pointless endeavour or that I had missed the boat with this film by taking so long to make it. But, obviously, that’s become a very positive attribute of the film. It turned out that five years was an excellent period of time to spend with these people.
How did Joshua Oppenheimer come on board?
S.O.S: He came on board through Spring Films who are the co-producers. They had executive produced Joshua’s film The Act of Killing and told Joshua about my film. He had asked to see a rough cut and liked what he saw and it went from there. As you might imagine, it was a very big deal for me. He gave some very good advice and was very insightful. He had a very good sense of what the film needed and what I had left to do which was interesting. Also, his reputation alone is immensely reassuring to other people. I’m very grateful to him for betting on me when he had really only seen a very rough cut.
What has the reception of the film been like, seeing its subject is particularly shocking and touchy?
S.O.S: The reception has been great actually. We had a screening at the Belfast Film Festival which I was really dreading because I was worried that a Northern Irish audience might feel sensitive to some of what was portrayed, but that was the best public screening so far. They just laughed so much and then were very touched at other times. When you’re editing your subjects for so long, you really get to know them and fall in love with every tiny gesture they make and editing is sometimes the process of sharing those insights you’ve gleaned. It’s an incredible sensation to see other people watch those decisions.
What is your opinion of the situation of women in today’s film industry? What is it like in Ireland?
S.O.S: It’s improving in Ireland. There are a number of new initiatives which have been established to encourage women into filmmaking. But, to be honest, those initiatives have been badly needed. It may have been the same everywhere, but I found the Irish film industry to be very patriarchal and conservative until recent times. There were very few roles for women that didn’t involve simpering or facilitating.
How do you think the European Film Promotion and Sydney Film Festival’s initiative “Europe! Voices of Women in Film” will impact your career, your visibility and the promotion of European female film talent in Australia?
S.O.S: It’s so important. I spent years feeling very outside of those events. This program amplifies women and introduces them to each other. I’m extremely honored to be a part of it. It’s a wonderful program of filmmakers. They’re all amazing.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker?
S.O.S: My new favourite is Léonor Serraille. I’ve just seen her film, Jeune femme, and loved it, but I will always love Lynne Ramsey too. She was a huge inspiration when I was starting in film and studying it. She creates amazing moments and I love her attitude too.
What are your next projects?
S.O.S: I’m developing a feature drama, Female Terrorist, and developing a new documentary also on the subject of post conflict.
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