Sinéad O’Shea is an award-winning filmmaker and writer. Her first feature documentary, “A Mother Brings her Son to be Shot,” premiered at CPH:DOX 2018 where it was nominated for a FACT Award and won worldwide acclaim. It became a front page story for “The New York Times” after the shooting of Lyra McKee in 2019. It was one of the most successful documentary releases in Irish cinemas of 2018 and O’Shea was named as one of the top 10 European female filmmakers to watch by the European Film Network and Screen International. She has also directed and produced over 100 films with Al Jazeera English, BBC, Channel 4, and RTE.
“Pray For Our Sinners” is screening at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which is running from September 8-18.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
SO: It’s a film about a resistance to the Catholic Church that took place in my hometown, but it wasn’t a very straightforward resistance!
W&H: What drew you to this story?
SO: It was in Navan, my hometown, and I knew nothing about it, so I was immediately keen to know more. Then I was very intrigued by all the people I met along the way. I knew that people like them aren’t normally seen on film or television. They were all quite introverted and “themselves” rather than given to grandstanding.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?
SO: This might be very idealistic, but I’d like them to think about what we mean by terms like “resistance” or “power.” It’s very easy now to stand up for certain causes but it’s the more difficult ones that need our help. That resistance in Navan was amazing because the people involved were taking real risks.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
SO: It was tough to get out of the way of myself. There were certain things that I just assumed other people knew about small town/rural life, so initially I didn’t do much to highlight them. My co-producer Maya Derrington grew up in the UK and was very good at spotting that.
I was also scared of betraying anybody too badly in the film as my family live there still and partly out of my own loyalty to there. I left when I was 17 and didn’t find it an easy place to grow up in, but I’m quite conflicted now about some of it. I like the modesty of the place compared to the pretensions of the city, for example.
Finally, I really struggled with the budget which was very small as below. Crew kept dropping out to do more lucrative jobs, to my rage.
SO: The film was 100 percent funded by Screen Ireland under their micro-budget scheme which is given to “a unique telling of an Irish story with universal appeal.” We were delighted to get this as it meant that financing for the film took place over weeks rather than years but the budget was very small so that was the downside.
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
SO: I’m not sure. I was thinking about this recently. I studied English for four years in college and was very worried about what I could do next. As a student I was waitressing in San Francisco and was fascinated by all the other people I met and thought that had the makings of a good documentary so I started there, but I hadn’t even seen that many documentaries, so it was a strange decision. I had a feeling it was possible, though.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
SO: I’ve had so much bad advice that I’m not sure one should solicit advice. When I was much younger, I used to show my ideas and little film and scripts to people – generally much older men – and they would eviscerate them. Now I see that these men weren’t even very good filmmakers or writers themselves, but then I was so crushed.
One piece of good advice I was given recently was from André Singer who executive-produced my first film, “A Mother Brings Her Son To Be Shot.” He watched a rough cut of “Pray for Our Sinners” and insisted I include my perspective more, and I think that was great advice in retrospect.
Joshua Oppenheimer who also executive-produced “A Mother Brings,” gave good advice while I was making that too, which was not to let festival deadlines dictate your edit. It’s a very wise insight which I should adhere to more.
W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?
SO: Given my ambivalent feelings about advice, I don’t know if I should offer any. It’s very useful, I think, to read good books and watch good films.
Also, I would suggest to heterosexual women that they be careful in their choice of partner. A bad one can lose you a lot of time.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
SO: I love “Petit Maman” by Céline Sciamma. I think it’s perfect in many ways and she is a just a wonderful storyteller. I like all her films, but I think the structure is ingenious and appropriate to a very poignant story. The problems with the French film industry have been well documented, but I do like its female filmmakers – I also love Léonor Serraille’s “Jeune Femme.” It was so funny.
W&H: What, if any, responsibilities do you think storytellers have to confront the tumult in the world, from the pandemic to the loss of abortion rights and systemic violence?
SO: It’s a big question. Arguably they have no responsibility. An excellent film can achieve plenty on its own. It can inspire people to think with less defensiveness and more creativity. Overly didactic work can be so boring. The work I make is quite socially responsible, I suppose, but I hate films that are too black and white.
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 Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?
SO: I think money is one of the main bars to diversity. It’s time-consuming and expensive to find your way into the film industry and that favors richer people who are more often white.
At the moment there is a move to increase diversity within the film industry, but let’s be honest, it often means that well-connected women or people of color are allowed entry instead. It’s still hard for those who are poorer and impossible for poorer people of color.
So I think that accessibility should be emphasized if the film industry wants to confront its history of underrepresentation.