The ordinary women who fought an uphill battle... and won

By Tanya Waterworth Time of article published Nov 10, 2020

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Durban - Whether for or against – abortion is a highly emotive issue.

In this year’s European Film Festival, which will be screening 12 new films, The 8th is one of two documentaries and it focuses on the grassroots activist campaign to repeal the 1983 Irish 8th amendment, which banned abortion.

In September 2018, the act was repealed by the Irish Prime Minister, Michael Higgins, following a referendum in which the country voted (66.4%) to overturn the ban, allowing for termination of pregnancy within the first 12 weeks.

The documentary has been described as having “a compelling narrative about a defining moment in Irish history” and was directed by “the powerful all-women and award-winning film-making team” of Maeve O’Boyle, Lucy Kennedy and Aideen Kane. The 8th has already received critical acclaim at the Hot Docs and Human Rights Watch Film festivals and opened the 2020 Galway Film Festival.

The directors O’Boyle, Kennedy and Kane commented on why they chose the topic of abortion and the impact for women around the world. They said the catalyst for making the film was “the X case”, a 15-year-old rape victim who refused to travel for an abortion, and more recently the death of Savita Halappanavar who was denied a request for an abortion following an incomplete miscarriage.

“There were many other tragic cases that happened to women in crisis pregnancies over the last 35 years and once we knew there would be a referendum to repeal ‘the 8th’, we knew this was one of the most important Irish stories for our generation to tell. We came together as three Irish women who worked in documentary production with a keen interest in telling stories about women. We had all lived under the shadow of the 8th Amendment in Ireland,” they said.

The common thread through the documentary is academic, feminist and human rights activist Ailbhe Smyth with her role contextualising the ups and downs of the campaign process. There is live drama, confrontation and questioning as politicians, priests, community leaders, campaigners and concerned citizens all have their say in the lead-up to the referendum.

“One of the key things about this film and movement for change is that young women stood up and they weren’t going to take it anymore. It was a grassroots movement of young people who got this over the line. We hope that women in South Africa, whether the issue is reproductive rights or human rights, will be inspired by this film to stand up for their rights.

“We hope that by showing how a small country like Ireland was able to convince a traditionally conservative electorate to have compassion for women in all kinds of crisis pregnancy, the story could serve as a road map for progressive reforms in other countries.

“As we all know, this is a critical time for women’s reproductive rights internationally, such as the nationwide protests in Poland,” they said.

And although The 8th has a point of view, the directors emphasised that, “the film attempts to tackle the grey areas between the two sides rather than maintain deep polarisation on the issue”.

“There are deeply held beliefs on both sides of this debate and as we wanted to document this moment in history, we needed to document both sides.

“Civility and civic engagements are critical to democracy and we hope that The 8th demonstrates that even when issues are deeply felt and passions are near the surface, people can discuss, differ and choose a way forward,” they said.

The second documentary at the European Film Festival is I Am Greta on teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg – from her one-person strike to her wind-powered voyage across the Atlantic.

With the festival’s theme this year being “Old Worlds to New”, other films include the medieval story Narcissus and Goldmund set in Germany, to Sharunas Bartas’s In The Dusk, a post-World War II story of Lithuania which still resisted Soviet occupation for a further 15 years after the war.

From the same era is Home Front where painful memories of the French colonial war in Algeria explode into the present.

The award-winning film by Marco Bellocchio, The Traitor set in the 1980s, features a whistle-blowing mafia boss who triggers the largest prosecution of the Sicilian mafia in history, while The Curveball takes the audience into the 21st century. It is a thriller which is fact-based and illustrates just how easy it is to slip into war.

On a lighter note, One Careful Owner is all about friendship, while themes of emancipation and self-discovery thread their way through two very different films, Becoming Mona and Mogul Mowgli.

The Polish film Sweat focuses on a fitness motivator, who has become a social media celebrity and influencer, how she wrestles with her popularity and what intimacy and loneliness mean in our digital era.

The 2020 European Film Festival, which will run from November 12 to 22, is virtual and will be accessible online across South Africa. The film screenings are all free, with the exception of I Am Greta, which R50 entry fee will go to a climate action group. For a full programme of screenings and special events, go to https://www.eurofilmfest.co.za/

The Independent on Saturday

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