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'There's 35 years of history there': Documentary takes behind-the-scenes look at Together For Yes campaign

Anna Rodgers, the director of When Women Won, discusses the importance of history when it comes to the ‘repeal’ campaign.

Messages in memory of Savita Halappanavar at a mural in 2018.
Messages in memory of Savita Halappanavar at a mural in 2018.
Image: Derek Speirs

A NEW DOCUMENTARY has taken a behind-the-scenes look at the Together For Yes campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment, which officially began in 2018 but spans decades. 

When Women Won, directed by Anna Rodgers, premiered at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival in March this year.

The 50-minute documentary focuses on the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment in the months and years running up to the 2018 referendum, along with some historical background to abortion rights in Ireland.

Two years on, Together for Yes commissioned this documentary featuring footage from the campaign and interviews with key activists including Ailbhe Smyth, Orla O’Connor and Grainne Griffin.  

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, director Anna Rodgers said every person interviewed mentioned the case of Savita Halappanavar.

In October 2012, Savita was 17 weeks pregnant when she was denied an abortion after suffering a miscarriage. She later died in University Hospital Galway after contracting septicemia. 

The death of the 31-year-old dentist led to a huge rallying cry for changes to Irish law in respect of abortion.

“It was like a turning point, especially for some of the younger people that took part in the film,” Rodgers said.

“It was what galvanised people to get involved, and you can look at the movement as pre- and post-Savita. There was an energy that came out of that where people said, well, we’re not going to go away and we’re not going to give up now. Legislation needs to change.”

When Women Won 2 - CREDIT DEREK SPEIRS Outside Dublin Castle after the 2018 referendum about the Eighth Amendment. Source: Derek Speirs

Activist Ailbhe Smyth, who has been at the forefront of the campaign for abortion rights in Ireland for decades, approached Rodgers and one of the film’s producers, Zlata Filipovic, about making this film a few months after the referendum.

“I suppose they were keen to capture the story and to have a visual of what happened, and a document to record, and also to use as a tool if they were going to speak in other countries and share their story and how they did it,” Rodgers said.

The original plan was a 15-20 minute online-only documentary, but this changed after the interviews took place.

“It’s such a long and complex story… Once we carried out the interviews with people, it emerged that it wasn’t really possible to do it short and that we needed to tell a longer story,” Rodgers said.  

There’s 35 years of history there, decades of very difficult chapters in Irish history where women were treated very badly and some very serious things happened, but you can’t tell all of that in a short documentary.

As the documentary was put together after the referendum, footage from other filmmakers, volunteers and RTÉ archives was used throughout. 

“It’s so great to have those little things – where somebody mentions a funny memory and then you find that little treasure of footage, that little moment, on a hard drive – because there are things you just can’t recreate,” Rodgers said. 

When Women Won 1 - CREDIT DEREK SPEIRS 'Youth for Choice' protest in support of abortion rights at the top of Grafton Street in November 1992. Source: Derek Speirs

She trawled through RTÉ video archives, finding footage spanning decades, clips of people “using that word, abortion, back when it was almost unspeakable”. 

“People who did speak out and campaign, or very bravely tell their story like Mary Holland, they were incredibly brave, but they paid a high price for it,” she said.

Mary Holland was an Irish journalist who wrote and campaigned for abortion rights. In 1983, she also wrote about her own personal experience of having an abortion. 

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Response 

After the documentary’s premiere in March, it was due to screen at a number of other film festivals abroad until Covid-19 restrictions were implemented. 

After being released online on the Irish Film Institute (IFI) website recently, Rodgers said the response to the film has been “wonderful”.

ABORTION REFERENDUM POSTERS II2A2881 Posters in Dublin during the campaign up to the 2018 referendum. Source: Rollingnews.ie

She said she hopes the documentary helps to highlight this “unique” campaign, that was “women-led and grassroots”.

“It’s very much the inside story of the campaign, it doesn’t purport to tell the whole story,” she said. 

There are many organisations that worked on this, lots of different experiences, but it is very much a document of the campaign and the activists who worked on this and their story.

Rodgers added that she hopes this documentary could be helpful for campaigners abroad to see how Irish activists contributed to a “huge seismic change in Irish culture and society”. 

“It’s fantastic with something like this that other campaigners, activists from other countries can look at what happened here and maybe take something from it,” she said.

“Some laws are becoming much more authoritarian and women’s reproductive healthcare is becoming more and more limited in some places, so the fact that Ireland was seen as predominantly Catholic and conservative, the fact that we could change a law like that, is something people can really learn from.”

When Women Won is free to watch on the Irish Film Institute website until tomorrow, 7 June.  

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