Belfast-born Kathryn Ferguson is an award-winning director whose innovative and boundary-pushing documentary work has screened globally. She was nominated for the Grand Prix award at Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival for her documentary short “Taking the Waters.” Ferguson’s other credits include “Incredible Machines,” “The Greatest Luxury,” and “Space to Be.” “Nothing Compares” is her feature length debut.
“Nothing Compares” is screening at the 2022 Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival, which is taking place April 28-May 8. Find more information on the fest’s website.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
KF: This is a hybrid feature documentary film that focuses on the years 1987 – 1993 and examines Sinead O’Connor’s meteoric rise to fame, what she did with her power when she was a global superstar, and how she was effectively one of the first female musicians to be canceled for choosing to speak out. The film looks back through a contemporary lens and asks the audience to consider our thesis that Sinead was in fact very often correct and hugely ahead of her time.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
KF: I grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the 1980s and 90s. It was a very divided country to grow up in with the ongoing violent conflict in the North, and the Catholic Church still very influential in the Republic of Ireland. Women and their rights — particularly their reproductive rights — were very low down the pecking order.
When Sinead burst into my consciousness, it felt like a door had been kicked open. Here was a bold Irish woman who said the things others didn’t feel they could say and she said them loudly. As a teenager and a huge fan of her music, I was deeply saddened and confused by how she was treated for putting her head above the parapet — it felt very demoralizing and [was] something that stuck with me my entire adult life.
When I began making films in my twenties, my instinct was to focus on telling women’s stories and Sinead was always at the forefront of my mind. It’s been a long and complex process to get to this stage. I’m still pinching myself that we’ve managed to make this film, and that it’s currently being shared with audiences on the international festival circuit. I hope I’ve done her and her powerful story justice.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?
KF: I would like the audience to think about how we can treat each other better, how we can be kinder, gentler, and less judgemental. I would like them to have a renewed understanding of the complexities of what Sinead went through. I would hope that people will see her as a powerful trailblazer who stood by her convictions at all costs, and as someone who has both soothed people with her music and inspired many around the world. I also hope it makes people angry about what she went through and what women continue to go through.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
KF: Making this film had multiple challenges. It was a pipe dream of mine for over a decade. When I finally met Michael Mallie and Ellie Emptage [the film’s producers and co-writers], we had a herculean task ahead of us on how to get the film funded and into production. We took the utmost care at every step of the process to make sure our approach was careful, considerate, and respectful.
Aside from funding, during the four-year process, Ellie and I were dealing with pregnancies and the birth of our first children, and when the pandemic struck there were definitely a few moments where we wondered if we could continue at all. We did push through however, and tweaked our approach on how we would tell the story.
One example was having to conduct all contributor interviews online instead of in-person. We adapted to the restrictions imposed by COVID and tried to turn a very uncertain situation into one that in some ways benefited the film. I worked with a fantastic editor, Mick Mahon, who was based in Cork [in Ireland] while I was based in South East England, and we muddled through the long edit process remotely. I’m very proud of the team for managing to bring it all together in the circumstances.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
KF: It was a long and arduous process and one we chipped away at slowly. It took over two years to get the film fully financed. Initial development funding came from Northern Ireland Screen, Screen Ireland, and BFI Doc Society Fund — who all went on to support us through the production stages, too. We also presented the film early on at CPH:Forum and Sheffield DocFest MeetMarket in order to drum up interest. We were delighted to have the unwavering support of Charlotte Cook and Field of Vision as executive producers, funders, and partners.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
KF: Best advice: take three big breaths as soon as you wake up in the morning to set your day — that’s never been more useful than over the past two years in particular.
Worst advice: “Maybe it’s time to think about doing something else?”
W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?
KF: Keep going.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
KF: Clio Barnard’s hybrid documentary “The Arbor” was a game changer for me. Her multi-layered and clever approach to telling the story of playwright Andrea Dunbar felt thrilling to me when I watched it. It was the first time I’d seen a hybrid documentary that really spoke to me and got me thinking about how to push the genre.
I am also a huge fan of director Jenn Nkiru — her bold approach to documentary definitely helped reignite my passion for the genre and how telling the stories closest to us creates the most authentic and powerful work.
W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?
KF: The biggest challenge I’ve had due to COVID is how to raise my son — [who was] born a matter of weeks before the first lockdown — and juggle that with completing this film. I’m sure it would have been a lot easier if the world had been a little less fraught. I feel like I’ve been raising twins over the past two years in particular — both my child and the film have been of the utmost importance, and I’ve done everything in my power to treat each of them with the time and love they deserve.
Despite the difficulties, I feel like my creativity has been a little supercharged by all the adversities we’ve faced, and as a fairly headstrong Irish woman myself, I don’t like giving up on anything really, so it’s been a matter of putting my head down and doing the very best job I can in both cases.
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make it more inclusive?
KF: I would agree completely. I think at the very least, actively seeking out a much more inclusive production team, crew, and cast is something we should be doing as filmmakers at the beginning of each production. Indeed, raising voices and celebrating diversity in filmmaking talent at every opportunity is so important.