NI man uses own family in film about dissident republicans

Johnny and his father Tom in church
Johnny and his father Tom in church

A new NI film set to premiere at Belfast Film Festival next month sees members of an Omagh family take on acting roles to tell their dramatic real life story.

‘Our Father’ is written, produced and directed by Johnny O’Donnell who believes it may be the first feature length film to explore a dissident republican storyline.

He plays the film’s only fictional character – the family’s eldest son drawn into a world of dissident republicanism and sectarian violence.

The 35-year-old, who has been living in London for around 10 years, said: “Johnny Kelly is the only fictional character in the film. I’m nothing like him, I believe in peace and reconciliation, but in order to push ‘Our Father’ to its limits I wanted to weave this sub-culture into the film.

“As an Irish man living in London, the general English perspective there is that the Troubles in Northern Ireland ended with the Good Friday Agreement and the ceasefire of the IRA.

“They are not always aware that there are these dissident republican groups who continue to operate.

Writer, director and actor Johnny O'Donnell

Writer, director and actor Johnny O'Donnell

“I wanted to represent the political landscape in Northern Ireland in an authentic way. Lots of movies have explored the IRA, this is one of the first movies to explore the dissidents.”

The rest of the cast is made up of his family members playing themselves.

Dissident terrorism aside, the majority of story centres on true events that affected the O’Donnell family.

Johnny said: “The main things that my family struggled with were my sister having a baby out of wedlock and my brother coming out as being gay.

A scene outside Omagh police station causes an actual security alert

A scene outside Omagh police station causes an actual security alert

“It was hard for my mother and particularly my father to come to terms with because of their devoutly religious Catholic views.

“The title ‘Our Father’ is based on the prayer, and my own father’s mission to deliver his children from evil.”

Johnny said: “When it came to casting, I thought who better than my family to play themselves.

“The story is based on their lives and no one understands these characters or their struggles better than them.

“It was a very difficult situation to talk to my family about appearing in the films. These emotions were still raw.

“What I did was sit down with each of them individually and let them know it could be almost cathartic and something that we would all have to look back on.

“There were some scenes that were very difficult to film like my brother coming out to my mum – a re-enactment of a moment that really happened.

“My father found some of the scenes very, very difficult but he believed in the overall vision. He broke down during one of the scenes as the emotions came flooding back.”

He told of one scene in particular that caused a spike in calls to police.

“We filmed a scene outside Omagh Police Station – with police permission – where two officers get shot by terrorists in a drive-by shooting,” he explained.

“The authenticity meant some people thought the police were actually under attack. It sparked a lot of calls to the PSNI reporting that PSNI officers had been shot.

“It did cause a real life terror alert and it even made the newspaper headlines the next day.”