IT’S A LITTLE difficult to believe, in this era where colonialism is now a four-letter word and the shackles of communism were smashed decades ago, in a context where feminism is a value that is taken seriously and one’s sexual identity isn’t something that need be closeted, that a country could still have been struggling morally with the idea of abortion, as recently as two years ago. This is the focus of The 8th, a documentary about Ireland’s eighth constitutional amendment, concerning abortion, which was repealed in a referendum in 2018. It features on this year’s European Film Festival in South Africa. Due to the ongoing pandemic, the entire festival is available online and most of it without cost from 12-22 November.
Constructed like a standard documentary, the work in part follows the argument of Alibhe Smyth, a women’s rights activists from the 1960s. She’s now in her 70s and is feisty and full of vim. The work is also at pains to lend itself balance, by presenting both sides of the abortion argument.
Indeed, much time in its 90 minutes duration, is spent with a focus on the oft hysterical path to the referendum itself. There is much filming of angry, picketing crowds, vehemently shouting for their beliefs. This is appropriate but begs for a stronger editorial hand: on some level through this morass of shrieking protestors, you may forget the issues at play: these could be service delivery protesters, anti-Trumpers or environmentalists plying their shtick.
So, what makes a work of this nature transcend the boundaries of ‘ordinary’? Arguably, it’s the human stories that you need to hold onto. And while the horrendous case of a 14-year-old who was raped and conceived is focused on towards the beginning of the piece — dealing with how, because she was underage, this suicidal teen was not allowed to leave Ireland for an abortion — the horror of this film’s premises becomes lost in talking heads and protest footage.
About three quarters of the way through this film, however, the text becomes rich with nuggets of compelling stories: such as that of Irish resident Savita Halappanavar who died at the age of 31 from septicaema in 2012 because the government disallowed an abortion; and that of the Magdalene Laundries, notorious in Ireland until the 1960s, which institutionalised so called ‘loose’ girls and girls who were pregnant out of wedlock, often resulting in the deaths of both the girls and their babies. On several levels, these stories should have been the nubs of the film’s focus.
And while the place of a documentary in our society cannot be pooh-poohed, it is the richness of this issue which embraces everything from the history of how a misogynistic society has treated women, to how the economy impacts on a woman’s desire to abort a foetus, that begs for a strong directorial hand, and maybe a fictional outlet. The unequivocal value of Peter Mullan’s 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters, or that of the current podcast series by Mark Heywood, The End of the Line, serves to establish a body of thought that is, in several ways, more compelling than an earnest and protest-heavy doccie.
The 8th is directed by Aideen Kane, Lucy Kennedy and Maeve O’Boyle. Produced by Aideen Kane, Lucy Kennedy, Alan Maher and Maeve O’Boyle, it features creative input by Sarah Caitriona Lynch (music), Matt Leigh, Aidan Maguire, Laura McGann, Esme Pum McNamee and Michael O’Donovan (cinematography) and Jordan Montminy and Maeve O’Boyle (editing). It is part of the 7th European Film Festival South Africa, screening online and without cost from 12-22 November 2020.