Film review: The 8th, 2020, Ireland– premiering in South Africa at The European Film Festival

What: The 8th Genre: Documentary Where: European Film Festival, South Africa 2020 Language: EnglishPremiere: South African premiere When: November 12-22, 2020 Bookings: https://www.eurofilmfest.co.za/films/

The 8th – a feature documentary is premiering in South Africa, on the 2020 European Film Festival.  All screenings are online because of the Covid pandemic.  However there are some in-person community events. Details on the festival site and link below on this post. There is no charge to watch films at the festival. The only title which is pay-by-per-view is I am Greta which is being screened as fundraiser to support a climate change charity (R50 a ticket).

In The 8th, a feature documentary (one hour and 34 minutes), three award-winning women directors, Aideen Kane, Lucy Kennedy, and Maeve O’Boyle, track the campaign in Ireland to revoke the 8th amendment (promulgated in 1983) which made abortion illegal. This culminated in the referendum to legalise abortion, on May 25, 2018.  The call, tabled at the referendum was to make abortion legal – in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy – irrespective of ‘reason’ for pregnancy. The final vote in the 2018 referendum: 64% voted in favour – ‘yes’ to legalise abortion [34% said ‘no’]. This was the same number that approved The 8th Amendment, 25 years before [1983].


The repeal of the 8th amendment was an extraordinary feat, in a country which is predominantly Roman Catholic. [“In 2016 Roman Catholics accounted for 78.3 per cent of the population…” Source https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-cp8iter/p8iter/p8rrc/]. Women lobbied for the right to terminate their pregnancies, to make decisions about their bodies and lives – and not to have their choices legislated by religion or state.

This victory for Irish women is different to what has recently happened in Poland. Both countries are in the EU.  The Irish decision was of course done by referendum: everyone in the country got to have their say.   In most countries, women’s rights are often controlled through a few elected or appointed legislators (usually male) and by courts (usually male dominated).  Abortion remains criminalised in Poland and Malta. In the USA, since 1973 when Roe v Wade was decided, the right to abortion has been curtailed in various States, and made increasingly difficult to access, and the fundamental right remains under constant threat of being overturned.   Reproductive rights are a boiling issue with the political/religious eroding personal wishes and rights.

I watched the 8th documentary, yesterday, November 7, 2020, as my phone pinged with updates on the American Election, with the votes being tallied between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. It has been a nail-biting few days. As of last night, November 7, CAT [Central African Time], Saturday, Joe Biden has been declared as the winner- president elect.

Watching The 8th, I was cognisant of the notion of a referendum with one issue on the table and the American election – which is multi-issued and let us not get into that. But, in the 8th we see an impressive campaign to shift perceptions, by executing a grass-roots campaign. A driving force was feminist campaigner, academic and LGBTQ activist Ailbhe Smyth –co-director of the Together for Yes national referendum campaign on abortion. It was ultimately about empathy, she reflects getting individuals to empathise with women who seek abortions – for whatever reason.

Through narrative documentary and archival footage, the abortion landscape is conjured up powerfully in this film.  It resonates of course in relation to abortion/reproductive rights and “sides” and the “issues” of state/religion/individual. We get that. In South Africa, abortion is legal, so let’s move along. However, what I find intriguing in this film and I think this could have been foregrounded in greater detail, is the process of campaigning; the dynamic activism involved in getting out and engaging individuals.

The referendum became a moment for “national catharsis” with Smyth and her team mobilising the Irish nation. It wasn’t just about voting ‘yes’ but about saying ‘no’ to the inequities in Irish society where women have been subject to abuse and their bodies have been appropriated by men, making rules and laws. Women in Ireland have been shamed by their pregnancies and shunted out of sight. The have disappeared into institutions like the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home (for unmarried women) that operated between 1925 and 1961. Many women have been trafficked for their bodies and babies; considered sinners – women and children.  Rather than simply trumping up religion versus the secular; the personal versus the political, what comes across for me in The 8th documentary, is how this bunch of activists were able to go beyond dogma and reach people. Ailbhe Smyth reflects how people would be talking to each other at home, over dinner and she wanted them to hear each other.

This impeccably researched documentary, although a tad too long, is a powerful record of a pivotal moment in abortion/reproductions rights in a particular country. It has been tagged as an “abortion film”. However, I see it as a film which is about the process of running a grass-roots campaign; actively disrupting the status quo and the power of democracy – and bringing about change.

The 8th production credits:

📽 Directors: Aideen Kane, Lucy Kennedy, Maeve O’Boyle (also producers)

📽 Producer: Alan Maher

📽 Editing Jordan Montminy, Maeve O’Boyle

📽 Cinematography: Matt Leigh, Michael O’Donovan, Laura McGann
📽 Esme Pum McNamee, Aidan McGuire
📽 Original score: Sarah Lynch
📽 Graphic design: Conor O’Boyle
📽 Executive producers: Amy Nauiokas, Jess Kwan, Abigail E. Disney, Gini Reticker


📽 Image credit: Supplied

📽 Related coverage of The European Film Festival, South Africa, 2020