The 8th documentary captures history in the making

Documentary ‘The 8th’ chronicles the campaign from 1983 until 2018 success, says Cara O’Doherty
The 8th documentary captures history in the making

A still from ‘The 8th’, which is directed by three women.

In 2018, the people of Ireland voted in a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

That ended a 35-year battle to change Ireland’s strict abortion laws and ensured that no Irish woman would ever need to leave the country to seek an abortion.

Three filmmakers documented the hard-fought battle, the results of which will premiere on streaming services on May 25, three years since the referendum. The 8th is directed by Aideen Kane, Lucy Kennedy, and Maeve O’Boyle. Three directors is unusual, but Maeve O’Boyle says that it allowed each person to bring their strengths and skillset to the table.

A mural honouring Savita Halappanavar.
A mural honouring Savita Halappanavar.

What made the trio decide to tackle such a big topic?

“We came together in 2016 and had a long conversation about the Eighth Amendment and whether we would collaborate to document the issue,” Ms O’Boyle says. 

“Savita Halappanavar had tragically died in 2012, and we knew that things were beginning to happen in Ireland. There was a huge catalyst for change. 

"We didn’t know what was going to happen, but we had a feeling it was going to grow. We knew that there was a strong possibility that a referendum might take place, so we prepped for filmmaking.”

The three Irish filmmakers were living in New York when they met. “Aideen [Kane] was the lynchpin who brought us together,” Ms O’Boyle says. “I met her when I moved to New York. She and I had talked about the issue of abortion and expressed an interest in documenting it. Lucy [Kennedy] is an investigative journalist, who I met through Aideen. We realised that working together was the key to getting such a big subject over the line. Aideen is an experienced producer, Lucy is a great investigative journalist, and I am an editor/storyteller, who works in longfrom documentary. Our combined skillset was the right combination for a collaboration.”

Ms O’Boyle says that as this is a story of women’s rights and autonomy over their bodies, it felt right that it was spearheaded by three women, and, in particular, three women who grew up in Ireland in the shadow of the 1983 referendum.

“Having grown up in Ireland and witnessed crisis pregnancies, it felt like a story of our generation,” Ms O’Boyle says. “It felt right that we should be the ones to document it.”

Three directors could have been complicated, but they agreed at the outset to take a democratic approach.

“We decided that if we had a disagreement or a different point of view, we would take a vote on how to proceed,” Ms O’Boyle says. “If two people agreed, then we would go with that decision. As it happened, we rarely had any clash of ideas. We were pretty much on the same page from start to finish.”

Ailbhe Smyth, co-director of Together for Yes, has campaigned for pro-choice since the 1983 vote. Her role was essential to the 2018 referendum, utilising both her experience and her passion for women’s rights. She plays a big part in the documentary. As a veteran campaigner, well known among activists, but an unlikely figure, Andrea Horan became a hero of the cause, and much of the documentary follows her campaign.

Maeve O’Boyle: Director.
Maeve O’Boyle: Director.

Ms Horan is the founder of Tropical Popical, a popular Dublin nail bar. Her approach to activism was to bring colour and glitter: Painting nails with the Repeal logo and adding sparkle to the campaign, which brought a new batch of supporters onboard.

“Andrea has an unusual approach to the issue,” Ms O’Boyle says. 

“Her idea of throwing glitter on an issue, and using that to heighten the seriousness of an issue, was a really interesting way to handle something as huge as reproductive rights. We felt it was a great contrast to the general campaign.”

Ms Horan’s use of art and creativity to highlight the importance of the Repeal movement brought a dynamic rarely seen in activism. Ms O’Boyle says that during their research, the team encountered many different types of campaigners, but they knew it was important to capture Ms Horan’s work.

“We filmed in the nail bar, and we encountered so many younger women, who were talking about the issues as they got their nails done. Andrea created a safe space for women and men to speak openly. 

"Many of her clients and staff are of an age where this would affect them directly. 

"It is very moving to see younger people share their stories.”

The documentary gives a voice to the ‘no’ campaigners, which, Ms O’Boyle says, was important. “We needed to incorporate the ‘no’ side. The three of us come from a pro-choice perspective, and all documentaries have points of view, but we wanted the documentary to have a more nuanced perspective.

“If you don’t give both sides of the story, you won’t know what the stakes were, or what we were up against,” Ms O’Boyle says. 

“You also don’t have a context or an understanding of how long this issue had been going on for, so all sides need to be seen, to give a full perspective.”

Archival footage and newspaper front pages weave through the documentary, which charts the history of women’s rights in Ireland.

Ms O’Boyle says these historical vignettes give context: “This isn’t a history documentary, but the past is an essential part of the story, so we picked certain elements to highlight, like the X case, like the mother-and-baby home catastrophe, and other cases where medical issues played a big part in a woman’s story.”

Ms O’Boyle says that the documentary campaign is important as a social record of Irish history and says it is having an impact worldwide.

“We’ve screened at festivals around the world, and people can see we didn’t give up. We fought for 35 years and, now, others are following, by taking up the baton of protest for various protests in their own countries.”

  • ‘The 8th’ will be released on video-on-demand on May 25.

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