Today, Irish voters go to the polls to vote in a referendum that could end the country’s constitutional ban on abortion. Every day, at least 10 women and girls are forced to travel from Ireland to England to access a safe and legal procedure. The cost, stigma, and stress of the journey across the Irish sea can make it a gruelling experience, adding to the complexities of terminating a pregnancy. In the midst of a deeply divisive referendum campaign, the stories of the women who make the crossing have risked becoming sidelined in a culture war. A new film, ‘Crossing’, aims to bring their experiences back in to the foreground. The King’s Review spoke to director Benjamin Leggett and producer Siufan Adey about the film and its message.
What was the genesis of the film? When did you know you wanted to make it? What led you to feel that film was the best artistic medium to do what you set out to do?
Siufan Adey (SA): I only became aware that abortion was illegal in the Republic and Northern Ireland just over a month ago. At the time, I was working on a final year architecture project for which I’d chosen abortion as a central theme. I feel very strongly about the subject and from the outset wanted to use my project to fight the stigma surrounding abortion. After reading some of the accounts of Irish women who were forced to travel to the UK for a safe procedure, I was struck by how little awareness there was on this side of the Irish Sea and felt compelled to help in the run-up to the referendum.
Benjamin Leggett (BL): Siufan approached me at the outset of the project, and asked if I’d be willing to help document a journey across the Irish Sea as part of a project exploring the issues Siufan’s talking about. I ended up working closely with our actor, Katherine Rodden, to improvise a story based on the horrific accounts that populated our research. We borrowed small aspects of stories told by different women who had made the journey to England to structure the narrative. This way of working proved very successful, thanks to Katherine’s abilities and working as a small team all on the same wavelength. Katherine was super excited to shoot something with her which would hopefully make a difference and raise awareness about the anti-abortion laws in Ireland and all their implications for so many women. Siufan’s decision to use film for her project made a lot of sense to me: moving images and journeys go hand in hand. It’s accessible, and it effectively conveys the subtleties of the situations faced by those we portrayed.
What were the principal challenges of making the film – technical, more abstractly political, or otherwise?
BL: As with any film the challenges were pretty mega.
SA: Agreed. So mega.
BL: Mega mega. We had no crew, no producer…no time! It’s rare to be able to successfully shoot a 10 minute film over two days: Figuring out the edit whilst shooting, recording sound and discussing how the performances could be improved all at the same time as trying to plan the next scene’s logistics was… mega. I think we got lucky: we pulled in favours, we worked hard and barely slept, but most importantly we got along and we all wanted the film to work. So we kept it simple and focused each scene on its message.
I couldn’t believe how well it came together in the edit. It was such a relief when we watched the first cut back and it made sense. It honoured the sacrifices which inspired it, and that was profoundly rewarding.
SA: The main challenge was coping with the immense amount of pressure that we heaped on to ourselves. It was profoundly important to us to make a difference without appropriating the plight of the people affected by the 8th amendment, and were extremely self-conscious of our position as non-Irish filmmakers. We made sure to approach the issue with the utmost sensitivity, so as to do justice to the thousands of women whose footsteps we were retracing. On top of this, we also had a very small time frame in which to fundraise, organise equipment, transport, accommodation, and find an actress who would be willing to help the cause at such short notice. We were very lucky to have received overwhelming support with donations from around the world – Japan, Australia, Singapore, and USA for instance. And at the last minute, Katherine agreed to star in the film- jumping in the car with us the following morning at 1am to drive to Liverpool.
While filming, we realised that the message would be best conveyed not in the form of a documentary as originally intended, but as two short films. We had to adapt throughout the whole filmmaking process and didn’t leave much time for sleep. It made for a very high-octane weekend.
What research was involved in making the film? Did you speak to anyone who had made the crossing to get a termination?
SA: I spoke to people who were close with women who had travelled to the UK for the procedure, but to protect their identity they were not able to put me in touch with them directly. The punishment for termination of a pregnancy is extremely severe, not to mention the threat of stigmatisation as well. Out of respect for the privacy of those who had undertaken such a traumatic journey, I felt that pushing for direct contact was not the best way to proceed. I turned instead to contacting charities and reading accounts of experiences from Facebook pages like ‘In Her Shoes – Women of the Eighth’ and ‘Together for Yes’
What was your impression of the political atmosphere in Ireland, with regards to the referendum?
SA: As soon as we disembarked from the ferry we saw signs from both campaigns strapped to every available lamppost and set of traffic lights. A lot of the images used in the ‘No’ campaign are very graphic. Tensions were very visible and very palpable.
What would you like the film to achieve?
SA: I feel that we’ve achieved so much already in raising awareness of Irish anti-abortion laws. If the two films can influence just one person to vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum then that would be amazing. The fact remains, however, that even if the 8th amendment is repealed after the 25th, this will only affect the Republic of Ireland. Abortion will still be illegal in Northern Ireland, meaning that women will still need to travel for a safe termination. I hope that the two films will continue to help in the fight for access to safe and legal abortion across the whole of the island of Ireland.