Lisa Dempsey reviews 406 Days, winner of the 2023 Dublin International Film Festival Audience Award and 2023 ICCL Human Rights Film Award.
This documentary tells the story of the 1,000 Irish Debenhams workers who were made redundant through a generic email on the 9th of April 2020, after Debenhams closed all 11 Irish stores. The workforce, 95% female, had been denied an earlier agreed redundancy package.
They voted to go on official strike and blocked stock from being removed from all stores. They remained on the picket lines, through the Covid-19 pandemic for 406 days, making it the longest industrial dispute in Irish labour history. They showed up 24 hours a day through sun, rain and snow, while also at times facing threats of arrest. The people behind the picket line, their friendships, courage and determination for justice are told for the first time in this film.
This film is a wonderful depiction of these powerful and courageous women. Their personalities are conveyed so effectively on screen, and the comradery felt between them on the picket line is so powerful.
It is an incredibly evocative piece, their feelings of anger and frustration are also felt by the audience on a deep personal level. Joe Lee’s direction brings these people to life and translates their feelings so effectively on screen.
Visually the film is stunning, particularly in how the interiors were shot of the now abandoned Debenhams flagship store on Henry’s Street Dublin. The edit did exceedingly well in bringing the story together, there was an understandable progression of how the movement began, developed and eventually ended.
There are some assumptions made by the filmmakers on what the audience would understand. As someone who was aware of the protests at the time and aware of the organisations and peoples involved, as well as having some (albeit limited) understanding of a liquidation process, it was possible to follow and understand the general progression of the movement. However, not everyone who watches this documentary would have the same knowledge of what was going on.
Who is KPMG? Who is Mandate? Why did Debenhams refuse to give the previously agreed redundancy package? What was the 2 + 2 agreement? What was the retraining agreement? What even IS liquidation?
These are all questions that are not clearly answered and the film could have benefited greatly from a single voice or legal expert on the case, just to give unbiased and clear context as to what is going on and why.
However, this film is, at its core, a film about the amazing women and men at the heart of this movement. It is understandable as to why this information was not prioritised, as the people behind the strike are the central subject of the documentary and any deviation from that may have affected the connection the audience feels toward them.
406 Days is a beautiful piece of work that highlights the courage these women and men displayed during Ireland’s longest industrial dispute, tied together with amazing direction, cinematography and editing. A wonderful film about the amazing, resilient people that exist in this country today.
406 Days opens at cinemas across the country on 26th May 2023.