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Be warned: the title of journalist Sinéad O’Shea’s jolting new documentary is in no way figurative. Majella O’Donnell, a resident of Derry in Northern Ireland, really did deliver her son to local gang members to be shot in the back of both legs, after they demanded retribution for his low-level drug dealing in their community (as she was told, it was either that or his execution). As O’Shea’s engrossing exposé reveals, this severe form of punishment, known as kneecapping, is not exceptional in Derry, an impoverished community in which outlawed gangs of Republican dissidents have taken power, exercising brutal vigilantism upon residents they perceive to be out of line.
While O’Shea positions the O’Donnell family (and the repercussions of Majella’s decision) as the emotional core of the film, this shocking headline is really only a jumping-off point for a broader exploration of the festering wounds of contemporary Ireland. Over the course of a five-year shoot period, O’Shea gets to know local activists, gangland mediators and, most terrifyingly, Republican gunmen in ski masks as she sketches a portrait of a region left behind, where many see Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday peace agreement as a phony facade that short-changed their community. Suicide and unemployment are rampant, gang violence is common and political unrest from IRA sympathisers seems to be back on the boil. This wallop of a film is executive produced by Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing), whose own unflinching work on unresolved national trauma should give viewers some indication of the grit to expect. — JF