- LOS ANGELES
Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor is for better or worse known to many for her career-altering a cappella performance of “War” by Bob Marley on Saturday Night Live in 1992 when she tore up an image of the pope, branding the Vatican as the real enemy in reference to the sexual abuse of children by priests. The backlash against O’Connor was swift and powerful. The global music superstar became the object of scorn and ridicule, exiled from the pop mainstream. Media treated her like a pariah. Even SNL went on to make O’Connor the butt of jokes in subsequent sketch comedy.
Among those crestfallen at the time was teenager Kathryn Ferguson who grew up in Belfast in the 1980s and ‘90s. Ferguson had become an admirer of O’Connor’s music and bold advocacy for women’s rights, particularly reproductive rights, and her pushing back against the Catholic Church on that front as well as speaking out for children victimized by priests. O’Connor’s fall from grace impacted Ferguson who felt that the artist was unjustly punished for taking principled stands--on the industry front, that also included a Grammy Awards performance that expressed support for rap music, which she felt was being minimized and ghetto-ized by the Recording Academy.
Fast forward to today and Ferguson is an accomplished director known for acclaimed documentary shorts such as Taking The Waters and Space To Be. After a decade of focusing on short-form fare centered on identity, gender politics and community, Ferguson has made her feature filmmaking debut with Nothing Compares, which charts O’Connor’s life and career from 1987 to 1993, spanning her meteoric rise and then what seemed a concerted effort to tear her down. The documentary has already scored on the festival circuit, premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, and winning honors that include the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Aegean Film Festival and the Audience Award at Docs Ireland. Nothing Compares starts an awards-qualifying run today (9/23) at select theaters in New York and Los Angeles, will be available to stream for Showtime subscribers next Friday (9/30) ahead of its on-air premiere on Sunday, Oct. 2. The film is then slated to release theatrically in the U.K. and Ireland on Friday, Oct. 7.
The archive-led documentary gains from a present-day perspective provided via a new interview with O’Connor who shares her recollections and reflections. Additional context comes from contemporary artists, musicians and social commentators shedding light on such themes as global activism, Irish history, politics, and the role of the arts in combating injustice.
Nothing Compares profiles an artist who was on the right side of history but paid a price for it. Ferguson, though, affirmed it was important that the documentary not fall into the typical trap of telling of a woman’s story through “the tragic heroine lens.” Instead Ferguson wanted to explore O’Connor’s legacy and place in history. This makes Nothing Compares much more than a music documentary. It delves, said Ferguson, into an artist of great cultural significance in Irish history and “how she has affected the lives of millions around the world.” Part of O’Connor’s legacy is the indelible impression she made on Ireland, playing a part in a cultural sea change that has seen the country become one of the more liberal in the world in recent years.
Strong bond, challenges
Ferguson reached out to O’Connor long before Nothing Compares. Studying at the Royal College of Art, Ferguson asked O’Connor’s management in 2011 about using her vocals for a Masters degree grad film, Mathair (Irish for Mother). Ferguson’s request was granted and led to her being invited to direct the music video for O’Connor’s single “4th and Vine” in 2013.
Ferguson aspired to bring O’Connor’s story to the big screen but the ball didn’t get seriously rolling on that front until 2018 when the director got together with producers and co-writers Michael Mallie and Eleanor Emptage who too were drawn to the artist’s life, music and continued relevance to critical issues today.
The determination of this core filmmaking team was up to the task of clearing hurdles to bring Nothing Compares to fruition. This was Ferguson’s first feature directing gig as well as Mallie’s first turn producing a feature. Their lack of feature filmmaking experience was according to Ferguson the first big challenge that the project had to overcome in order to gain the trust of financial backers. Luckily, continued Ferguson, Emptage had a feature pedigree which included Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, a documentary that premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, and Tomboy, a feature doc. which made the cut at 2021 SXSW Fest.
Then came the COVID challenge. Archival footage houses were all closed for at least six months--which was problematic for a documentary which was around 70 percent archival film. On the flip side, with the pandemic keeping so many people at home, it became a bit easier to remotely line up interviews with key people to bring additional perspectives and dimension to Nothing Compares.
The experience of making Nothing Compares yielded life lessons for Ferguson who identified one of the key takeaways as simply being “patience is a virtue. Really this project was such a pipe dream,” she said, summing up the prospect of one day being able to tell the story of O’Connor, an artist whom Ferguson admired ever since she was a teenager. Friends recalled Ferguson wanting to do a version of this film 10 years ago and they never believed it would happen. “If you really want to create something, put the energy in, you can move mountains if you focus,” affirmed Ferguson. “It gives me a lot of confidence going forward that things which maybe felt impossible are possible.”
It was particularly gratifying to have a contemporary interview of O’Connor helping to propel the film. “To hear her story in her own words was important, especially after having felt for so many years that the media did such a fantastic job of being reductive of everything she said,” related Ferguson, observing that ultimately Nothing Compares shows that O’Connor is “a survivor....The loss of a mega commercial career wasn’t of any huge concern to her. She wanted to be an artist, a musician, to write the music she believed in--all of which she certainly has accomplished.”
As for the accomplishment of realizing her first feature, Ferguson believes that helping her immeasurably was the filmmaking acumen she honed over the years in the short-form discipline. The aforementioned Taking The Waters premiered at the Sheffield Doc Fest in 2018 and made the international festival rounds. In 2021 she worked with Passion Pictures on the Space To Be short for The Guardian’s highly regarded documentary film series. Ferguson has made assorted shorts and/or commercials for international brands (Air France, Dove, Nike, Sony), fashion designers (Chloe) and other notable artists such as Lady Gaga, architect Zaha Hadid, designers Stella McCartney and Bella Freud, trans activist Charlie Craggs, and actor Emma Watson. Ferguson continues to be represented by Believe Media for commercials and branded content in the U.S. market.