Friday 4 June 2021

Strength in numbers: "The 8th"

A film made by a coalition of women about a coalition of women,
The 8th invites grouping with 2015's The Queen of Ireland and this past April's Groundswell in a buoyant mini-season of documentaries illustrating how the Irish Republic has become a beacon of progressive hope off the coast of the increasingly moribund British mainland. The title refers to the 1983 amendment to the Irish constitution that assigned unborn foetuses the same rights as the women carrying them, making abortion a criminal offence. (As a result, an estimated 3,500 women each year were forced to flee to the UK to seek treatment.) Early scenes here suggest this isn't necessarily the left-right issue abortion has hardened into in the United States, rather more indicative of a widening generational divide. Those taking to the streets over the past decade with an eye to overturning the 8th tended to be fresh of face and attitude, and of an age where greater freedom and choice in the matter of reproductive rights might very well be appealing. Those leaning the (often visceral) pro-life placards against the bus stops opposite were those raised on Catholic doctrine, and folk who - in the main - no longer had to worry about falling pregnant. Still, day by day, the shackles were loosening. What the film offers is some reflection on the state of Ireland back in 1983, consideration of what came to pass over subsequent years (including segments on an emotive 1992 case involving an unnamed 14-year-old rape victim, and the tragic, wholly preventable death of Savita Halappanavar two decades later), and observation of the tensions mounting in advance of the 2018 referendum after which the country was nudged, gently and with self-evident kindness, on a markedly new path.

That's plenty for a 90-minute primer such as this to get into, but directors Aideen Kane, Lucy Kennedy and Maeve O'Boyle have also taken a care to ensure The 8th is grounded throughout in lived experience. (Mainland viewers will likely view it as an object lesson in how to run and win a referendum campaign while staying true to your values and the issues in play.) The camera falls in most closely with Ailbhe Smyth, an unflusterable septuagenarian who headed up the Coalition to Repeal the 8th, observed setting out her strategies for countering what many in the Republic clearly took as the word and law of a far higher power. Yet we also get brisk photoportraits of such figures as Andrea Horan, the pro-choice proprietor of a Dublin nail salon, whose contributions to the campaign included rounding up her most photogenic clients to help settle on a coherent social-media message (#IAmHunreal, whatever that means, for Instagram, and Don't Stop Repealin' for Instagram Stories); Wendy Grace, a radio news journalist taking care to weigh the evidence before deciding a Yes vote to repeal was the right decision for her; and hordes of selfie-snapping students in those suddenly - and somewhat unnervingly - ubiquitous Handmaid costumes, themselves bolstering this broadest of lowercase-c churches with numbers and online presence. As in Groundswell, what the film is really fascinated by is the formation of the kind of progressive coalition - it's still a bit too white to fully merit the descriptor rainbow - which may now be required to win hearts, minds and battles such as these. 

It possibly helped that the opposition had started to die off, to some degree - or at least that the demographics were shifting. When one pro-Repeal rally is interrupted, it's by a solitary, sheepish-looking middle-aged bloke in a kagoul who at least has the wisdom to recognise he's outnumbered, and by foes with far sharper talons than his own. (As Horan would doubtless insist, we shouldn't underestimate the importance of a good manicure in the current political climate.) Again, there may well be lessons here for British leftists, themselves faced with an entrenched and rapidly ageing enemy, lording over a country that appears deadeningly set in its ways. I think the British Left would probably take the issue of abortion in its stride (which is why so many Irish women have gravitated this way over recent years); you'd need more than nail glue to hold any such alliance together around the issue of trans rights, alas, or (gulp) Israel. For their part, the Right currently seems keener to roll back LGBTQ+ protections - though that's not to say women's rights aren't some part of those, and that the rest won't be next. Formally, The 8th doesn't deviate too wildly from time-honoured grassroots documentary practice - it's here to witness, and thereby to break a major social shift down into graspable, often door-to-door steps - but you can't fail to be struck and stirred by the energy and persistence of Smyth and her cohorts, and the civility of the debate they initiated. Late on, Kane, Kennedy and O'Boyle conjure up a powerful evocation of the pivotal final days of campaigning: an audio montage of women's voices that seem to bubble up from the land, at long last unignorable.

The 8th is now touring selected cinemas, and available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.

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