Film Review - 'Children of the Revolution'

Posted on: 11 May 2011 by Alexander Hay

Shane O'Sullivan's documentary vividly captures the legacy of two controversial mothers

Shigenobu & Meinhof leave a complicated legacy

Mothers are often complicated creatures, the ones who you often spend the most time with, but who often seem sidelined in comparison to the influence of the father or father figure. Nonetheless, if Fathers inform, then Mothers mould.

With this in mind, Shane O'Sullivan's new documentary, 'Children of the Revolution' is compelling viewing. Premièred at this year's Palestine Film Festival at the Barbican, it chronicles the lives of two notorious female terrorists – Red Army Faction founder Ulrike Meinhof and Japanese Red Army Kingpin Fusako Shigenobu. The film also compares and contrasts the effects they had on their daughters, Bettina Rohl and May (or sometimes Mei) Shigenobu.

There is in fact quite a contrast between the two mothers in the film, despite their shared belief that the ends justified the means and that having their children raised in Palestinian refugee camps was somehow a good idea. Ulrike started out as a left-leaning West German journalist quietly being manipulated by her GDR handlers, before depression, brain injury, a nasty divorce and a downward spiral into rage and fanaticism turned her into a terrorist and, finally, a martyr through suicide to a certain fan-base that won't stop flaming her daughter.

Fusako by contrast was a true believer from the start, her father's ultra-nationalist, right wing supremacist dogma passed on to her in the form of a radical and violent left wing mirror image. (Tellingly, they were on good terms despite their differences.) From there, her attempts to bring down the Japanese government brought only failure and so, like many a radical, she hitched her wagon to a marginally more successful cause, in the form of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine , with whom the Red Army committed some of its most spectacular crimes.

O'Sullivan recounts and intertwines these two stories seamlessly, despite the fact that Meinhof and Shigenobu had absolutely nothing to do with each other.

He uses an excellent range of archival material, all edited together effectively and uses interviews with bit-part players, major figures and the daughters themselves to good effect, using it all to paint a picture of individuals who through accident or design moulded their daughters through their own extreme trajectories.

The only presence missing, oddly, is Shigenobu Senior herself, currently doing time in a Tokyo prison; by contrast we're left feeling like we know Ulrike intimately at the end, despite the fact that she took her life 35 years ago.

While sympathetic to his subjects, O'Sullivan does not serve as apologist nor prosecutor of either, simply letting their words and actions speak for themselves in the midst of the complex morass of Middle East politics and the casual thuggeries of the West German state, which saw nothing wrong in psychologically torturing Meinhof and the rest of the gang for months on end, or keeping her preserved brain as a sort of perverse trophy until Bettina and her twin sister finally took custody and laid what remained of their mother to rest.

As Bettina herself points out, Germany still hasn't quite got over its past, though in saying this, she indicts her mother as much as the zealots of the Stasi and the Nazis.

But what does the film reveal about the daughters? Of the two, Mei comes off the worst, coming across as a woman who can't quite stop herself being an apologist for her mother's crimes, buoyed along by family friends who help maintain the sort of parallel reality where shooting up airports, taking hostages and blowing up jumbo jets is perfectly justified, and where one can claim Fusako is innocent of what the Red Army did under her orders and still keep a straight face.

If anything, Mei's tragedy is that she can't accept that her own watered-down brand of her mother's radical politics is simply not helping the Palestinians she claims to feel such empathy for. Decades of 'armed struggle' have not improved their lot, and Israel's ersatz annexation of the West Bank continues apace. Her mother's part in ensuring this self-defeating violence was perpetuated cannot be understated.

In fact, May rather stitches herself up at one point by conflating the rotten cause of Hamas with that of the Palestinians. In doing so, it seems she has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Still, as said, fanaticism is the family trade, and it is on a perversely optimistic note that we end with her embracing not violence but the media, in fact following an opposite direction to that of Ulrike Meinhof. As it happens, Mei is growing up in a way her mother, forever trapped in a sort of violent adolescent revolt, never can.

Bettina, meanwhile, has grown into a decent, dignified woman who neither excuses her mother's actions nor dismisses her as a total monster. Growing up in a stable home and being able to take a measured view of the world around her, Bettina's victory as a parent and a wiser, more humane figure than her mother could ever be puts the harsh rhetoric and grim actions of these parents into a dismal perspective.

Click HERE to read our interview with Children of the Revolution's director, Shane O'Sullivan!

Children of the Revolution will next be shown at the Cannes Film Festival Market on Monday (16/05/2011), and again in the UK at the Open City London Documentary Festival on the 16th of June. It will be released on DVD later in the Summer.

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Alexander Hay

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