(USA, 94 min.)
Dir. Aideen Kane, Maeve O’Boyle & Lucy Kennedy
Program: Persister (World Premiere)
Documentaries have a bum rap for being kind of grim, focused as so many of them are on real-life oppression and the often futile pursuit of social justice. So how sweet it is to see The 8th, a documentary on the movement in Ireland to gain abortion rights for women. Spoiler: the movement succeeds.
Actually that’s not a spoiler. The triumph is history. What’s not well-known is how a grassroots posse of savvy activists bloomed, fought the Catholic Church and transformed public consciousness to win the 2018 referendum.
By trailing the pro-choice organizers, led by long-time activist Ailbhe Smyth, and by making sure to check in with the anti-abortion militants, The 8th uncovers the key strategies that led to success.
In one key sequence, the pro-choice faction candidly discusses the need to change course away from simply trumpeting women’s rights. Stay away from making women seeking abortions look selfish, don’t talk about what is owed to them. Keep the focus on compassion for women in need. Ultimately this last principle inspired their main slogan: Compassion, care, choice.
The filmmakers wisely give considerable screen time to anti-choice activists, many of whom, yes, are fanatic, cruel and uncaring of women, but others are thoughtful and respectful. Smyth and her pro-choice band know well that those people will never change their minds, so the key voting contingent is made up of those lodged firmly on the fence. Pro-choice lobbyists take direct aim at them with their pitch for compassion.
Some pro-choicers are engaging in political action for the first time. When they begin knocking on doors they appear to have no communication skills, but you can see them gaining confidence as they talk to voters, honing their message and making gains. One passionate first-timer, the owner of a nail salon, engages all her employers in the campaign and doesn’t hesitate to press her clients.
Of course, this isn’t the same Ireland as the one that entrenched the rights of the fetus over women hundreds of years ago. Trust in the Church has gone AWOL in the wake of sexual abuse scandals, its moral authority tarnished also by revelations of the brutal way unmarried mothers and their babies were treated in Church-run institutions, where they were basically imprisoned. The 8th makes sure to give this history serious attention.
And veteran organizer Smyth is a delightful subject, knowledgeable, self-deprecating, with superb leadership skills deployed tirelessly while suffering excruciating back pain.
Go along for the ride on this journey to social justice and Ireland’s transformation from repression to acceptance of women’s right to choose.
The 8th screens at Hot Docs’ online festival beginning May 28.