The 8th film review: More to this Repeal film than mere victory lap

The 8th looks back at campaign

Hilary White

The 8th

Four stars

Cert 12, on demand platforms

Two to one. In 1983, that was the ratio by which Ireland voted in favour of inserting into the Constitution an amendment recognising the equal right to life of the pregnant woman and the unborn.

And 35 years later, that was the same margin by which the nation voted to repeal it.

If ever there was a metric by which to gauge the growing up that Ireland seemed to squeeze into just a few short years, it would be hard to find a more indicative one than the 8th Amendment and the huge national swing in attitude towards it.

The intervening three-and-a-half decades had revealed much about what conservative Irish values looked like once you pulled back the curtain.

There lay reams of clerical abuse, Church-State collusion, and thousands of young, scared Irish women boarding ferries and flights to the UK so that we could carry on what former Taoiseach Enda Kenny called “our national obsession with ‘putting away’ people, truth, reality”.

The overwhelming (in many senses of the phrase) victory for the Repeal movement in 2018 was, for those at its coalface, a long time coming. Even neutral observers would have to admit that the Yes campaign had the wind of change at its back, but it must be remembered that the success it had on polling day was hard-fought and the result of canny strategic thinking and precision canvassing.

The team who pushed tirelessly for the abolition of the amendment and for securing better healthcare for the women of Ireland knew it would only come about if the large undecided middle of the electorate was convinced.

There was still some PTSD left over from the bitter and bruising 1983 battle. What was needed was the right words, the right tone, and door-to-door engagement at ground level.

Arriving on the third anniversary of that sea change, it is only right and proper that this documentary positions veteran pro-choice linchpin Ailbhe Smyth at its centre. Filmed in the run-up the referendum, it follows her and campaign partner Andrea Horan as their mission gets airborne.

Smyth is a candid subject with which to anchor this film document, and we get to see not only what makes her tick but the graft and guile that had to be summoned to capitalise on this once-in-a-generation window.

Smyth, Horan and their team hit upon a values-driven campaign that marched to the beat of three Cs: care, compassion and change. This was their masterstroke.

Co-directors Aideen Kane, Lucy Kennedy and Maeve O’Boyle could see what was about to happen and mobilised with as much decisiveness as the campaign itself. The groundswell nature of the victory, and the euphoria that marked it, would ensure the trio never had to worry about fireworks in the final act. This meant they could concentrate on laying out what it took to set them off.

It sounds simple, but perhaps it isn’t, given the deep social history knotted up in abortion in Ireland. Watching The 8th and the manner in which it both zeroes-in on the issue while also capturing the broad tectonic shifts underfoot, you come to see this is a bit more than just a victory lap.

Intertitles debrief the viewer, and archive footage, headlines, and interviews illustrate the timeline of horror that preceded the Referendum – the X Case, Savita, Tuam.

In its rounded, clear-eyed retelling, it also has the decency to hear the case from the No side first-hand and remind us there were real women with real reasons for fighting on that front.

On the frontlines of the winning side we are gradually placed within earshot of individuals whose personal stories not only explain what was at stake but why an army of women and men volunteered to design logos, print posters, and knock on doors the length and breadth of the land.

It only took place three years ago and it is likely the emotions will be fresh in the minds of Irish audiences. While there is that sense of a tablet being chiselled to mark the turning of the world, you also get the impression that this film has a job to do in relaying the triumph to other shores.

It is no coincidence, for example, it is getting a simultaneous Ireland and UK release, a doff of the cap by the filmmakers to the country that for too long took care of a problem we preferred to wash our hands of.