Belfast Film Festival Does Fashion

Having worked with Lady Gaga, Chloé and Sinéad O'Connor, filmmaker Kathryn Ferguson will rock the Belfast Barge

We’re going to need a blinger boat.

As part of the 2013 Belfast Film Festival, the Belfast Barge has been boarded by curator, Carol Murphy of Fugi: The Fashion Filmmaker’s Blog for Fashion Film Programme 1.

Amongst a distinguished panel of fashionistas booked by Murphy to speak is Belfast-born filmmaker, Kathryn Ferguson, who has worked with Chloé (see film below), Lady Gaga and Sinéad O’ Connor, to name but a few, and who will show some of her work and take part in a Q&A session on April 12.

Ferguson studied fashion at Central St Martins School, London, where, as part of a final project, she was expected to produce a magazine. Instead, she made a film, a tribute to the excesses of Weimar Germany called Tingel Tangel, starring the then unknown singer, Paloma Faith.

After a brief sojourn as a stylist thereafter – 'I hated it with a passion' – Ferguson applied to do a Masters at The Royal College of Art, also in London, where she evangelised for fashion film.

'They were very hard at the RCA,' she recalls. 'They were looking at my films and asking, “What are you doing? This isn’t film!” So it was hard, but it was brilliant because I came out of the other end really thinking.

'It made me much more of a feminist: fashion filmmakers tend to be women and it makes you really conscious of being a woman. You have to be aware of what you’re putting out there in terms of body image, in the way that you present femininity.'

This is certainly true of Ferguson’s own work, which manages to combine filmic sophistication and fashionable fabulousness with a dark seam of personal tics: mysticism, folklore and her own cultural identity.

'I went on a pilgrimage for a week around the west coast of Ireland, up to Knock, with my mother. You couldn’t ignore the iconography of Mary at those shrines, the commoditisation of her.

'The street are lined with these little pound shops selling glow-in-the-dark-Marys and little praying hands sculptures. I was very interested to see my mother’s take on it, as she’s profoundly Catholic.' And how did she take it? 'Oh, she thought it was a disgrace. She thought it was tawdry and awful, I’m pleased to say.'

The film that came from this journey was Mathair, a lush, hyper-real riot of Catholic iconography. There are three figures presented throughout the film: a veiled pieta with sequined tears, a crowned heavenly monarch, draped like a statue in perfect white, and a billowing ineffable, shivering in gold over the black water, the colour rippling through the inky depths like a flame.

Water literally saturates Ferguson’s work. Mathair is also an exploration of the artist’s Irishness, and water is an every day fact of Irish lives. All the more reason, perhaps, that Ferguson's appearance at the Belfast Film Festival should be set on a boat.

The framing of the figures is central, every shot based upon a bisected screen, echoing the cross or the candle, the phalanx of phalluses central to Patriarchal Christian worship.

Ferguson seems to be offering us a female version of the Trinity in this film: the mother, daughter and Holy Ghost. It also harks back to pre-Christian times, echoing as it does the virgin, mother and hag archetypes. The mother here is, after all, also the mother country.

It was these ideas and archetypes that, perhaps unsurprisingly, attracted Sinead O’Connor to want to work with Ferguson on her film for '4th and Vine' (see below), the first video O’ Connor had appeared in for 20 years.

That music video seems a world away from the stylised perfection of Maither, but notions of an Irish folk tradition are common to both – archaic practices like breaking bread over the bride’s head and the burning of the straw boy’s hats are both presented, even as the craic is doled out like so many milky bars.

Ferguson did her research, contacting Linda Ballard of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum for guidance on some of the odder aspects of the indigenous marriage tradition.

'I’ve been pretty lucky with videos,' she says. 'Usually there are 20 filmmakers pitching for every song, but because Sinead’s people saw Mathair and liked it, there were no other tenders. It gave me unusual freedom and the time to really do research, which you wouldn’t normally get. When you’re pitching you usually have to come up with something immediately.'

Fashion film is in its infancy, a newish film genre finally attracting admiring glances from parts of the film industry and brickbats from others. How does Ferguson see it evolving?

'There has recently been something of a backlash against fashion film. The FT has written disparagingly about it. People in the film industry are saying that the films are dull and I tend to agree, but to me the critiques are useful. I find it very interesting how the industry puts everything into boxes, compartmentalises everything.

'It’s important that fashion film as a genre breaks out of old ideas and explores new territory. It can’t just be a girl in a dress standing in a field. While I may sound critical, I think you do have to be critical and I think it’s a positive thing. I think it’s thrillingly progressive for Carol to bring this over here [to Belfast]. Fashion film isn’t really happening outside the fashion capitals, so I’m feeling really positive.'

Kathryn Ferguson will be showing her work and taking part in Q&A on the Belfast Barge from 8pm on Friday, April 12 as part of the 2013 Belfast Film Festival.