Directors: Maeve O’Boyle, Lucy Kennedy and Aideen Kane Running Time: 95 minutes
The Galway Film Fleadh opened last night with the world premiere of Irish documentary The 8th. With subject matter so closely tied to the recent national psyche of the country, going as it does through the campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment which constitutionally banned abortion in the Republic, it can be difficult to assess Maeve O’Boyle, Lucy Kennedy and Aideen Kane’s documentary on it’s own merits. Functioning similarly Linda Cullen and Vanessa Gildea’s Marriage Referendum doc The 34th, the film plays out as a matter of historical record, but the filmmakers do allow the heavy emotions of the time their rightful place, elevating The 8th beyond the newsreel footage.
The details will be all so familiar to Irish audiences, but The 8th does the legwork in setting the historical context which built up to the 2018 Repeal the 8th campaign, opening with an explanation of how the Amendment was voted in to begin with in the 1980’s before weaving in and out between the campaign in the ‘present’ and the X Case, the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, and Ireland’s dark history in general with marginalising and harming women. It’s laid out informatively, if a little conventionally – highlighting newspaper headlines, assembling television reports, setting scenes with radio ‘voiceover’ and offering a series of talking heads to tell the story. Smartly though, the directors anchor it all in a couple of key personal stories, to underline what is at stake for individual people who can get pregnant, and preventing the doc from feeling like a visual Wikipedia summary, all too common in the drier offerings of the genre.
At the heart of The 8th is a woman who was also at the heart of the abortion campaign for decades, academic, feminist and human rights activist Ailbhe Smyth. From the outset Smyth’s unassuming charm and unwavering drive make it clear why she had been near the centre of this movement for so long, and highlighting the mental and physical toll of so many years of activism creates a personal connection to the viewer. The film also follows Tropical Popical’s Andrea Horan, and charts her journey as a woman who hadn’t previously considered herself political and did not identify herself in the feminist space, becoming more and more active in the Repeal campaign. In Horan specifically, the film captures the motivation of many women in the country of that age and younger, the push to engage when faced with such an unconscionable issue. Horan’s enthusiasm and sense of humour also embody the conflicting energy around the campaign, the determination to try and keep a positive face at the front of something that for many was so deeply difficult, raw and personal.
O’Boyle, Kennedy and Kane also include a number of voices from the Vote No campaign in the film. The film is firmly on the Repeal side, but the presence of anti-choice campaigners highlights that what ultimately ended as a landslide victory was no sure thing in the moment, and paints a fuller picture of where Ireland was at. Maintaining a balance between platforming the highly conservative representatives from the likes of the Iona Institute while still acknowledging their presence is a tricky act to pull off but one that the film does well for the most part. A cynical, craven wart like John McGuirk is never going to pass off the opportunity to mouth off on camera, and while the film’s interviews don’t exactly give him rope to hang himself with, there is a catharsis to seeing the particularly repugnant representatives of the No side set themselves up for a fall.
Historically relevant, well-assembled and emotionally open, The 8th is a documentary with a set idea of what it is trying to accomplish and captures its moment successfully. While it would have been a great choice to open a festival with a crowd present, the film is at least set to receive a full release in Irish cinemas later this year. With so many having done so much work in the campaign, more eyes looking back can only be a good thing, to reflect on what was accomplished and to reinvigorate the activism that was awoken, particularly among Ireland’s younger women, for the fights still to be won in the future.(3.5 / 5)